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Learning the abundance of a gift economy

Learning the abundance of a gift economy

Posted by on Jan 30, 2014 in all posts, Brazil, on the road | 0 comments

During our second week in Rio (Brazil), I received an email from my good friend Manish Jain, one of the founders of Shikshantar and Swaraj University, in Udaipur, India.  Manish was writing to give me the name of Edgard Gouveia – someone we ‘really should try to connect with’ as he was doing some really exciting and inspiring work in Brazil.

Hand-drawn sign inside house, Paraty, photo by Kelly

Hand-drawn sign inside house, Paraty, photo by Kelly

Following through on our principle of openness to what-arises-along-our-journey, I contacted Edgard right away and told him something of Enlivened Learning – what we were doing and why. Edgard responded within a day and invited us for a visit with him at the small and magical coastal town of Paraty, located about mid-way between Rio and Sao Paulo.  He was there co-creating and co-developing a game project – ‘Play the Call’ which he said he would tell us lots more about once we arrived… Udi saw that we could stop and visit Edgard on our way back to Rio after visiting the Landless Movement University, which was only an hour from Sao Paulo.  We were a bit concerned about finding a place to stay, especially with costs.  I emailed Edgard and asked for accommodation suggestions.  His response came – ‘we are exercising gift economy as much as possible’ … plenty of space in exchange for us cooking a few meals!

Hand-drawn sign inside house, Paraty, photo by Kelly

Hand-drawn sign inside house, Paraty, photo by Kelly

I first came across the ideas and language of ‘gift economy and gift culture’ when I visited Shikshantar: Rethinking Education and Development in Udaipur, India in 2008.   Manish and his wife, Vidhi co-founded Shikshantar in 2000 as an open space for gathering together, co-learning and co-creating alternatives to mainstream ideas and practices of education and development (so-called progress). Aside from the many activities I engaged in while visiting Shikshantar, all of which included a generosity of time, creative spirit and skills, I spent hours delving through the deluge of donated books, magazines and other texts stacked on shelves that lined the walls.   In particular, however, there was a stack of self-designed, ‘copy-left’ booklets on a range of topics that Shikshantar had self-published on a back table. One of them, Reclaiming the Gift Culture (edited by Manish and his sister, Shilpa) caught my eye.  It became my first encounter with the language and ideas of gift culture, or gift economy, as it is often called. Reclaiming the Gift Culture   The Shikshantar booklets were available through contribution (whatever anyone feels moved to give).  I donated a small amount of money at the time to take several of these publications home with me. I found them inspiring and engaging –  I used several of these booklets and incorporated them into different classes I taught at the University of Bath.   ………. Back to Brazil ……….   We arrived into Paraty after a day of bus travel from the Landless Movement University.  We were without a phone and about 3 hours later than we had said we would arrive.  All of us were tired, hungry and a little car/bus sick from the hours of travel. Paraty is a beautifully preserved Portuguese colonial town along the Costa Verde (Green Coast), a lush green section of coastline in the state of Rio de Janeiro, south of the city of Rio de Janeiro.  The town looks much like it did when it was settled during the Portuguese colonial days – the buildings are all refurbished, left over from the colonial era, the majority of the streets have not been paved and have unique forms of large cobblestone.

Entering the old and historic section of Paraty on a rainy night, photo by Udi

Entering the old and historic section of Paraty on a rainy night, photo by Udi

It had been raining when we arrived and some of the streets were nearly flooded.  The pedestrian-only streets of Paraty consisted of large stones where we had to either hop or take large steps between them, because of the rain.  Not such an easy mode of transport carrying heavy bags and feeling tired and sluggish.  However, we all felt a burst of new energy as we walked/hopped deeper into the town in search of the house with the address where Edgard was staying. We finally found the address at a huge corner house, one block from the sea.  We rang the doorbell and no one answered.  Suddenly around the corner came three people.  We heard a loud, booming voice, ‘Kelly?  Udi?’  Edgard was suddenly there with two other friends.  He enveloped each of us into a big hug (quite easy for him to do as he is 2 metres tall!) and ushered us into the house. We entered into an exquisitely beautiful house that looked as if it could still be the 1800s.  The floors were dark wood, high ceilings and lots of windows.

Colonial architectural splendor inside house in Paraty, photo by Kelly

Colonial architectural splendor inside house in Paraty, photo by Kelly

The walls were adorned with signs and posters from what I was assuming were drawn by the different people that had been joining Edgard to co-create the game project.

Shot from inside the house with poster of 'Play the Call' - photo by Kelly

Shot from inside the house with poster of ‘Play the Call’ – photo by Kelly

We all sat down in the huge main room and a long conversation ensued.  The friends that were with him – Chris was leaving the next morning and was just passing through town as Udi, Marina and I were.  The other friend, a lovely woman called Adrienne, had been there several months offering her time and creativity on their game project, ‘Play the Call’. The intent of the game is to involve young people to engage more directly in making change within their community.  It had evolved as an online, virtual game that is carried out in real life.  Young people over the age of 8 are given a series of ‘missions’ to plan and carry out, each one more challenging than the previous.  In order to move to the next mission, each player also had to engage with others about what they are doing and why, take a few photos to exchange the story of how they had accomplished each mission – and have it ‘liked’ by many on facebook, before moving on to the next mission.

Hand-drawn poster, 'Play the Call', photo by Kelly

Hand-drawn poster, ‘Play the Call’, photo by Kelly

The entire project had been completed almost entirely without monetary exchange. The aim was for the game to be entirely accessible, for anyone and without any barrier-of-entry due to some financial requirement. The idea was that the planning, creating and establishment of the game should be completed in the same way.  In other words, all stages of ‘Play the Call’ (from its conception to its full functionality) were to become part of a gift economy and culture. Edgard had been experimenting with various possibilities of a gift economy to not only provide access to the game, but to set it up as well.

View of Paraty town from main room in house, photo by Marina

View of Paraty town from main room in house, photo by Marina

Edgard made the point that if you are clear in what you want and open to asking and giving (through acts of reciprocity) things open up, often beyond what you think is possible.  The idea of ‘Play the Call’ aspired to contribute to a more peaceful and just society.  But, to get things rolling, Edgard needed a place to stay, to host other people, access to food, technical expertise and people who could help co-create the specificities of the game.

Posters hanging in the house - made by co-creators of 'Play the Call' to organize process and intention, photo by Kelly

Posters hanging in the house – made by co-creators of ‘Play the Call’ to organize process and intention, photo by Kelly

Most of us are completely dependent on money to ‘do the things we want to do’.   I hear this statement all the time.  If ONLY I had the money, I could…. I would… Again and again – before embarking on this journey, and during this journey, we have met many people who stopped projects because of the lack of financial resources ‘it just became impossible because we did not have enough resources’. Yet, many, many others along our journey have used their lack of financial resources as a welcome opportunity to imagine alternative forms of resources to be more creative and further enhance what it is that they want to do – to reach out – building communities and learning (and exchanging) time, creativity, energy, hospitality, new skills in the process.  At the base of this, it has seemed to me is a willingness, a confidence and a courage to re-define what is meant by ‘resources’ and to see the abundance of what is around you, immediately available (if you can see it in this way), rather than seeing most of the world through a perspective of scarcity.

Goethe quote hanging inside house as point of inspiration, Paraty, photo by Kelly

Goethe quote hanging inside house as point of inspiration, Paraty, photo by Kelly

Udi and I have been trying to do this as well – where we can.  Coming from research backgrounds where institutional money is spent much more freely (e.g. – hotels, restaurants, taxis) during time spent in the field conducting research, we have been unlearning on this journey — by being committed to engaging in gift economy practices as much as we can.  Although there are obvious costs associated with flight travel that are difficult to negotiate (especially long flights between countries), we have been taking many long (15+ hour) bus rides, staying in homestays and with friends– as well as couchsurfing (rather than staying in hotels).  We have also been offering our skills with filmmaking and photography from a ‘copy-left’ (what is mine, is yours) perspective when we can.

View of the sea and mountains from the room we slept in, Paraty, photo by Kelly

View of the sea and mountains from the room we slept in, Paraty, photo by Kelly

Edgard had been searching for a place in which he could host people to help create and support all aspects of ‘Play the Call’.  A friend of his let him live in a house of theirs for 4 months, for free – a house that accommodated many people at the same time.  To feed himself and the people who came to help, Edgard reached out to local restaurants and food businesses and asked that they donate meals during the months they were creating and finishing the game.  For the technological expertise needed to create and complete the game, Edgard invited people he knew – to then reach to more people that they knew – to locate interested and technologically skilled people to come and give their time and energy. All of these steps of reaching out worked.  Gifts of accommodation, food, skills and creative energy were exchanged in this way through reciprocity.  The abundance that is there, literally right at Edgard’s doorstep – was not out of reach.  It just had to be located and asked for.  The reason it worked?  Edgard’s humility, energy, commitment and passion for what ‘Play the Call’ could be … would be … once completed.  Not just for the young people participating, but for their communities – and as a huge network of individuals and communities across the globe. As Edgard explained – ‘who can say no to the earnest and innocent energy and courage of children? — as adults, we are far more likely to listen to the views of children than other adults’   This was a fledgling, but very much living gift economy that Edgard helped to setup in the local community of Paraty around his project.  These gifts were actually alive – providing sustenance, energy… as Lewis Hyde describes the ideal of a gift in his wonderful book ‘The Gift’.

Another inspiring quote (this one by Williamson) hanging up in the house, photo by Kelly

Another inspiring quote (this one by Williamson) hanging up in the house, photo by Kelly

The gifts exchanged as part of the ‘Play the Call’ gift economy were imbued with a spiritual energy surviving the consumption from those individual participants – these gifts literally, kept the creation and development of the project alive… and they created new networks of community relationships out of individual heart-felt expression of hope toward the project.  These gifts as part of the ‘Play the Call’ gift economy were simultaneously material, social and spiritual. A gift economy or gift culture focuses on exchange as any economy does – but this exchange avoids typical exchanges that we are used to within a capitalist system.  In other words, beyond money … money is seen as one form of many different types of exchanges, rather than the ONLY form.  A gift economy and culture exchanges services, skills, time, non-commodified labor, care, hospitality, love…

From left - Edgard, Marina, Kelly and Adrienne - walking in the streets of Paraty at night, photo by Udi

From left – Edgard, Marina, Kelly and Adrienne – walking in the streets of Paraty at night, photo by Udi

… and as Edgard taught Udi, Marina and me, a gift economy increases the livingness, the value of the gift by creating community and bringing forth abundance where it might not have been seen or experienced previously.  Typical to gift economy or gift culture, there was the avoidance of the interaction of money or consumer good as the center point of the exchange. Gifts exchanged within a gift culture or economy, are centered on relationships between those exchanging gifts (which again Lewis Hyde beautifully describes in his book). Imagine if learning communities that emerged from gift culture were commonplace.  Imagine if our learning was to imagine, create and experiment with different forms of gift culture and reciprocity.  How much richer could our worlds be?

Flower petals in Paraty cobblestone, photo by Marina

Flower petals in Paraty cobblestone, photo by Marina

There are communities all over the world that are experimenting with different forms of gift economy – places like Universidad de la Tierra (University of the Earth in Oaxaca, Mexico), Swaraj University (that emerged from Shikshantar in Udaipur, India), transition towns creating local currencies and time banks, home-schooling communities tapping into the wealth of local knowledge and skills that are within walking distance of their homes… In various forms, each of these places are experimenting with gift culture and economy.   Last October, Manish and many others organized a ‘Giftival’ in Istanbul, Turkey followed by another Giftival held in Kerala (India).  See this link for a detailed blog posting about the Giftival event in Turkey. I hope to write much more about our continued learning and encounters with gift economy and gift culture as our journey continued… Edgard taught us about the possibilities of taking a brilliant idea and creating a living project and community — by finding the abundance that is right around you and engaging in a reciprocal gift economy.  We did cook those few days with Edgard — and he gave us the invaluable gifts of courage, wisdom, hospitality and friendship, to inspire us to notice the abundance around us – and to spread that awareness and inspiration with others….

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Visiting a Sociable Movement, the MST

Visiting a Sociable Movement, the MST

Posted by on Sep 2, 2013 in all posts, Brazil, ENFF | 0 comments

In the next few posts we pick up our journey once again in South America…

The bus from Rio dropped us off on the highway 70km before arriving in São Paulo. The highway passes through small towns, farms and factories. Getting our bags before heading down the small country lane we are greeted by a large sign with colourful dancing M & Ms in front of the chocolate factory across the highway, the banner reads: ‘A diversão começa aqui’, ‘The fun begins here’.

Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes, São Paulo, MST, outer wall mural. photo by Udi

Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes, São Paulo, MST, outer wall mural. photo by Udi

We did not know what to expect as we came to visit the Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes ENFF, the Florestan Fernandes National School, named after an eminent Brazilian sociologist and activist. This place of higher education (they do call themselves a university), is a flagship and central learning space of the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, Landless Movement of Rural Workers, (or also known as the acronym, MST).

Founded in 2005 through the collective effort of the MST and funds from eminent supporters like photographer Sebastião Salgado, musician Chico Buarque and many others, the ENFF has been created to act as a central learning hub for the MST and other like-minded social and ecological movements in Brazil and Latin America.

Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes, São Paulo, MST, arial photo of school. photo by Udi

Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes, São Paulo, MST, arial photo of school. photo by Udi

Our communication with the coordination team of ENFF had been sporadic and brief so we did not know how we would be received and if people really understood what we were doing. We also were not sure what, if anything would be happening at the school as courses do not run all year round but happen in blocks at certain times of the year or else in one-off events. Any unease we had about being here soon dissipated as we are warmly received and shown to our accommodation by our friendly hosts who were in charge of organising this place.

Sao Paulo, ENFF

Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes, São Paulo, MST, Still from film. photo by Udi

Landless Rural Workers, like other marginalised social groups, such as those from the favelas which we wrote about in the last posts, tend not to be fairly represented in the mainstream media in Brazil. The MST in particular, because of their struggle for an overhaul of the country’s intensely unfair land ownership system and the proposal for a socialist and redistributive state, tend to receive a particularly negative representation from the right-wing leaning printed press, such as Veja magazine and from Brazil’s largest media conglomerate, the Rede Globo Network.

Sao Paulo, MST, poster of school

Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes, São Paulo, MST, Poster. photo by Udi

Against this hostile media background the movement has also always suffered from violent attacks and threats by landowners. The most notorious of such episodes was the massacre of 19 MST activists in El Dorado dos Carajas in the state of Pará by military police in 1996. During our days visiting the School, a regional MST leader, active in promoting more environmentally sound agriculture, was murdered in the state of Rio de Janeiro. Many at the school knew him and on hearing the news an emotional celebration of his life took place.

With threats, the actuality of violence or death and the symbolic violence of the media, it is no wonder that the MST can be guarded to outsiders. But it did not take long, as has been our experience in all the places we have visited, to feel warmly welcomed by those we met: people coordinating, running, teaching and learning at the school.

During our time in the School we were shown around and talked to coordinators and activists from the MST, a couple of university lecturers who were teaching classes here, a group of teachers working in schools across the country who also came here on a course on Education, Literature and Music and Rural Education. We also talked to younger MST members who were studying at public universities across Brazil in courses designed in partnership with ENFF. We will talk more about what we learned from them and from being there in the next post.

Whilst here we also talked to people like Cléia who had a degree in agriculture and was working in the gardens demonstrating various aspects of cultivation and who was especially keen on bringing more ecological principles into the movement (which has historically used a more chemical-based and industrial approach to farming and food processing so as to make production more commercially viable). Agro-ecology is taking over as an important agricultural view and practice in the Movement.

Sao Paulo, MST, garden

Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes, São Paulo, MST, Garden. photo by Udi

We learned about the international dimension of the Movement talking to Leo, who was here at the School waiting for the rest of his team from the MST who were going on a two or three year posting to Haiti to work with local partners on a water capture, storage and irrigation project in communities affected by the 2010 earthquake. Leo, from the northeast of Brazil, had already been to Haiti on this project for two years and spoke Creole, he loved his time there and was keen to go back. He was here to also teach others from his team Creole and about the project.

We learned about the experience of children in Movement from two delightful guides, five and eight years old, sons of families who were living here at the School. They showed us around the place: where the pre-school children organised themselves to have a camp night, away from their parents in the premises of the school; the large cafeteria where people ate all meals together; a frog swimming in the swimming pool. We loved their curiosity, confidence and ease at engaging with grown ups. The MST also has its own children’s groups and events, the Sem Terrinha, or Little Landless People, at each camp and settlement which also has its own publication.

Sao Paulo, MST, kids feet

Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes, São Paulo, MST, The feet of our guides. photo by Udi

(This experience we had elsewhere in our journey when we met children who were being raised within a learning environment that gives young people more autonomy, encourages their own initiative and curiosity in defining what they want to learn. We want to write about this in later posts).

Combined with the warmth of the people we talked to, their optimism and deep motivation and commitment for a better world what moved me the most whilst visiting the School was something more subtle which I had not read or heard described elsewhere about the MST. This has to do with the strong affect between members of the movement, their care and warmth for each other and the ties of solidarity that bound them.

The stereotype about people who are highly politically committed, especially those subscribing to a particular ideology, is that there is a kind of hardness, a righteous anger, a future orientation and single-mindedness that is incompatible with tenderness and a gentle cultivation of interpersonal relationships. But here at the School the deeply political and gently interpersonal were interwoven. There was a beautiful softness between people along with playful laughter in between the discussions of politics.

Perhaps this is the result of the physical proximity through which many in the Movement must have at some point in their lives lived through with other activists in the temporary camps where they occupy unused and unproductive land across Brazil. Living in a camp means living close together and cooperating across all aspects of life so as to ensure survival, like nomadic bands do in so many parts of the world.

Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes, São Paulo, MST, Teachers Play Performance, photo by Udi

Maybe these bonds of affect and solidarity are also the result of the cultivation of a deeply democratic culture within the movement. Decision-making across various aspects of day to day life and about the direction of the movement are taken through constant deliberation, debate and voting. This democratic ethos is promoted across levels of the Movement, from camps to regional and national secretariats, from pre-school children to university study groups. The aspiration for a participative culture is infused in the movements’ very pedagogy, the way they practice and understand the role of teaching and learning. I will write about this in a following post.

Sao Paulo, MST, dinning room

Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes, São Paulo, MST, Dinning Room. photo by Udi

But beyond the living in close proximity and cooperating in camps and settlements and the democratic ethos of the movement there is another important catalyst that weaves the ties of affectivity and solidarity. This is the mística.

Mística can be translated as the ‘mystic’ or maybe more faithfully the ‘mystery’. This is the ceremony that members of the MST are involved in daily, often early in the morning, and at specific events. Though the MST is deeply influenced by Liberation Theology, the popular movement that swept Latin America’s large Catholic community from the 1960s and interpreted Jesus’ message through the lens of social justice and Marxism, mística is not a Christian ceremony. In fact, in the ceremonies we attended whilst we were there, no Christian symbols were seen. Instead the ceremony is a celebration and evocation of a living thread of those who have struggled for freedom and justice across history.

In one of the místicas we attended, for instance, the images of Zumbi dos Palmares, the 17th century African prince and runway slave who led a colony of former slaves in their battle against the Portuguese crown in Brazil, was placed. This picture, surrounded by flowers and candles, sat along that of Steve Biko, the South African activist and intellectual who fought against apartheid and who was murdered by the police in the 1980s. The mística also involved singing and poetry and even some dancing.

classroom with Biko

Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes, São Paulo, MST, Classroom with Biko and Via Campesina flags. photo by Udi

Like other ceremonies we have taken part along this journey (see Quechua post) we enter them shy, awkward, self-conscious of the theatricality of the performance, yet keen to participate with an open heart and mind. We try to soothe the over-analytical and distancing mind and feeling academic training and irony-loving post-modern culture has cultivated. Instead we try to join in song and dance and the spirit of the event, opening ourselves to the experience. Soon a warm feeling of solidarity emerges amongst us in the group and a sense historical continuity with others also striving for a better world. This thread in the mística is probably not far from what Gandhi called Satyagraha, truth or soul-force, a spiritual strength that overcomes injustice in the world seeking to show the true nature of things.

My experiences here, where I have spoken of the strong affectivity, warmth and solidarity at the ENFF are not necessarily reflective of the Movement as a whole, a very broad and diverse collection that includes hundreds of thousands of families spanning the continental scale of Brazil and its many local cultures. But at least here in this place of learning these qualities of friendship and solidarity, so often absent or repressed in more traditional academic spaces, where very much present.

These are qualities we have also been experiencing in other learning places we have visited, teaching us a great deal about a whole sphere of being in the world and being together (of emotional, social and spiritual intelligence to put it crudely) that is painfully lacking in conventional higher education spaces. Experiencing how learning spaces can accommodate and nurture these dimensions of our being, as we have tasted along this journey, has been inspirational for us showing that there are some powerful ways of re-imagining higher education.

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Imaginary Struggles

Imaginary Struggles

Posted by on Jun 27, 2013 in all posts, Brazil, ESPOCC | 0 comments

I started writing this post a few weeks ago. Since then the bubbling discontent we witnessed across Brazil when we were there in January and February in relation to a number of social and political issues including the huge costs of the upcoming World Cup has spilled out into the streets.

People across the social spectrum have got fed up with the way the World Cup costs have spiralled up, sucked public money into private coffers and at the same time, across the country, displaced people and destroyed parks and other common spaces for the building of new facilities. In some cases like the Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, this historical stadium will be operated by a private company in the first time in its history.

People have also got fed up with the rising cost of living in the country (in part a consequence of the Games), with the rise in public transport costs, but most of all they are fed up with corruption, with the failure of the rising economic growth to tackle the problems in the health and education system in the country.

Brazil has not seen such mass protests in twenty years and it looks like the government is going to have to listen. The post I write here, is about the struggle of media spaces and the images and stories which are produced about, and now increasingly from, marginalised places like favela communities. The post relates to the present struggles in Brazil in as much as the media continues to be a place of contest where a battle over stories and imaginations is also waged.

ESPOCC - mural outside.JPG

Mural outside the Popular School of Critical Communication (ESPOCC) in the Observatório das Favelas, in the Maré community of Rio de Janeiro, photo by Udi

Imaginary: Existing only in the imagination () Origin from Latin imago which in psychoanalysis is an unconscious, idealised mental image of someone, say a parent, that influences a persons behaviour.

 

Favela: a group of dwellings with high density occupation, the construction of which is carried out in a disorderly fashion with inadequate material, without zoning, without public services, and on land which is illegally being used without the consent of the owner

(Official Bulletin of the Brazilian Secretariat of Social Services quoted in Perlman The Myth of Marginality 1979:13).

 

Imaginary of Marginality: An imaginary about historically marginalized populations, held by dominant social groups (and sometimes internalized by the marginalized themselves) often containing prejudiced representations, images, stories, sometimes connected to stereotypes around race, poverty and gender. These negative representations tend to circulate in the dominant mass media and in certain forms of research and educational systems. Un-confronted, these representations come to be widespread amongst the population and perceived as the main narrative, the norm.

 

We often come to see and know places and people we do not personally encounter through stories and images that others create about them. These stories most commonly come to us through the media – through television, the news, the internet, etc. At the scale of a city, the media helps to virtually weave an imaginary web linking separated places and lives. We are often not very mindful of this web – this matrix of images and stories, feelings and attitudes, but also a landscape we walk through in our day-to-day lives that provides a sense of meaning to us and the world around us.

The nature of this imaginary web is shaped by those who weave it. Those weavers, often the most privileged sectors that dominate and own the media, have little experience or willingness to convey the stories and perspectives of the less powerful in those communities, especially through their own voice, their own point of view and experienced reality. Here in Rio de Janeiro, places and communities like favelas for instances.

 

Rio ESPOCC rede globo.jpg

Globo logo, Brazil’s largest media network, still from TV

The democratization of the media has been an important area of mobilization amongst civil society and social movements in Brazil for several decades. Especially since the end of the dictatorship (in 1984) gaining access to the institutions of mass communication has also come to be seen as an important right to acquire, that is intrinsically linked to the identity and practice of being a citizen in Brazil. This right-to-acquire has come from the growing recognition of the media as a force that shapes society and public opinion and, as such, something that ought to be more equitably distributed and controlled. The theme of media and citizenship, or what has been referred to as ‘visual inclusion’, has also gained importance in Brazil’s public sphere over the last two decades.

Visual inclusion here means the inclusion of a more diverse and representative presence of Brazilians and their stories across the national media. Indigenous people, Afro-descendants or else regional cultures are infrequently or else stereotypically depicted in the media which is dominated by the Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo axis (and a particular upper middle class culture and perspective from these cities).

rio - espocc poster.jpg

Posters of different film festivals organized by the Observatório das Favelas, ESPOCC, Maré community of Rio de Janeiro, photo by Udi

Visual inclusion also involves the more equitable distribution of the means of image production amongst the population. Though community radio has been around for much longer in favela communities, what we now see in Brazil is the intensification of alternative media production centers and dissemination networks, in particular through new forms of technology such as social media, digital video and photography and the Internet. Such initiatives are often aligned with grass-roots and community organizations across a number of historically marginalized groups and communities.

Rio - ESPOCC sign.jpg

An example of this kind of work is a project I came across in Rio de Janeiro around 2006, the Observatório das Favelas based in one of the citys biggest favela Complexo da Maré is large conglomeration of 16 different communities and has a population of around 140,000. The Observatioro das Favelas is a large community-NGO responsible for a number of different projects inside favela communities focusing on research, policy development and capacity building.

Observatório das Favelas and others like it who, to varying degrees in scale and success operate in different favelas, see a major part of their role as involving the formation of technically competent and politically aware individuals and groups inside low-income communities. A key element in many of such initiatives is what is often referred to asCritical Communication, involving the telling of stories and conveying the perspectives of those who live in these communities, especially from members of these communities themselves. Essentially – their own narratives, stories, voice.

A pioneering project of the Observatório das Favelas is the Escola Popular de Comunicação Crítica ESPOCC (Popular School of Critical Communication) which had its first class of forty-two students in 2005 and is now in its 8th year. This project is a one-year vocational course with the aim of training young people mainly from Rios favelas and peripheries, but now also from the middle classes, to become critical communicators, to learn how to engage with and challenge the imaginary of marginality prevalent in the city.

For example, favela communities are often depicted in the mass media as violent spaces, lacking in all the things the other parts of the city have – education, work, culture, organisation, safety, and so on. Such representations mean that these places, and those who live there, bare the stigma associated with these images and stories. They have an identity imposed on them emanating from these images and stories, which have no part in creating themselves. Residents of favela communities, which as we saw in the previous post on the Museo da Maré have in some cases been here for three generations, live under and cultivate their identities under these adverse conditions, and not only this but they are also discriminated in day to day relation to others across the city and to the state.

You could say that the young people in ESPOCC learn to read the web, the matrix, the media landscape in an acute way so as to subvert it and create their own narratives and media spaces. They learn to weave different imaginaries across the city, contributing to the transformation of the imaginary of marginality into more inclusive imaginaries. I will write more about this in the next post.

We witnessed an example of the prejudiced media landscape in the city and how people have been trying to combat this during our time in Rio. Though not directly involving ESPOCC, I point to these events here as they occurred whilst we were in Rio and clearly show the kind of mass media logic that places like ESPOCC are engaging with.

The city has been busily preparing for the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016 building many new sporting facilities. For the World Cup the city has been converting the 60 year old Maracanã Stadium (in its time the biggest stadium in the world with a capacity of 100,000) to the international criteria of FIFA demolishing some surrounding structures and buildings for new parking facilities. One of the buildings to be destroyed was the former Indian Museum which has been unused as a museum since the 1980s but which has been occupied by a group of indigenous families since 2006 in protest of plans to demolish this historically significant building. After a number of standoffs with the police Rede Globo, the dominant media conglomerate in the country, did a news piece to discredit the indigenous protesters by saying that they had been selling drugs at the premises. Armed with their own video cameras indigenous filmmakers filmed the reporter and confronted her with the lies being told about them. The clip went viral on the Internet and Globo was forced to retract their story.

Mural outside the Popular School of Critical Communication (ESPOCC) in the Observatório das Favelas, in the Maré community of Rio de Janeiro, photo by Udi

As Salvador Passos, analysing the incident put it:

The objective of this type of comment was to disqualify the families that were there. When running such news-story without due verification, the channel does a disservice to democracy. The news item provides the perfect alibi for a violent intervention and removal of the indigenous families. Suddenly, there is no more talk of real estate speculation and profits, but rather of drug trafficking and vandalism on the part of the natives, all based on images that prove nothing. [my translation from http://www.advivo.com.br/blog/luisnassif/acusacoes-da-globonews-sobre-as-tribos-do-museu-do-indio?page=1]

The story encapsulates the overlap of media interests and the imaginary they attempt to weave with the corporate logic and profit motive that pervades these mega sporting events with full endorsement of the state. Both attempt to transform the city without much concern for those whose stories and lives have no place in their imagination. That the ‘natives’ now have a camera and access to alternative media networks, like those associated with ESPOCC, means that such dominant interests cannot weave their own imaginary of the city unchallenged.

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Still from video posted online showing the confrontation between indigenous people occupying the Museo do Índio and a Rede Globo reporter

To see clips of the story around Indigenous occupation of the museum and Globo and its response see:

http://revistaforum.com.br/blogdorovai/2013/01/15/globo-news-se-desculpa-por-ser-leviana-com-indigenas-da-aldeia-maracana/

For a friends’ (Nayana Fernandez) short film on the story see:

https://vimeo.com/62336744

For an excellent article on the recent protests in Brasil written by the same friend see:

http://lab.org.uk/uprising-in-brazil-an-extraordinary-moment-for-change

 

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Enlivening the Learning, Enlivening Everything! Part 1

Enlivening the Learning, Enlivening Everything! Part 1

Posted by on Jun 11, 2013 in all posts, Argentina, Brazil | 0 comments

I met Kelly while I was doing an MA in Education at the University of Bath, UK. She was teaching “Education and International Development” and I decided to take the course. After the academic year, we met once, for lunch, and we got along really well. Suddenly, on January 3rd of this year I was landing in Rio de Janeiro airport to join her and Udi for one month (until February 5th) visiting different initiatives in Brazil.

So, after a whole year of hard work, why did I decide to spend my holidays time with a former lecturer and her husband?

In August 2011 after having spent a wonderful year in Bath, UK, I was back in Argentina. Looking back, I could say that there were three experiences that really impacted me while I was back in Buenos Aires, which made me reflect about how I was feeling and which propelled me to go to Brazil. I’ve shared these stories with a few people, but I’d like to share them here. I guess there are many who may have gone through similar experiences:

  1. One day, while I was on Facebook, somebody who was doing a Masters degree in the U.S. posted a picture of the view of the moon from her dorm window. As soon as I saw it I started remembering how, when I was in Bath, I used to take pictures like that one: pictures of flowers, of the squirrels, of the light at a certain time of day hitting the leaves of trees, of the hills, of the old buildings, of the crows on the chimneys, of the canals, of the rainbows and, also, of the moon. I felt like I was in a permanent state of awe. Why didn’t I take these kinds of pictures anymore? Unlike the squirrels, and the crows, and the flowers and the canals, the moon, from my Buenos Aires bedroom window, was the same moon I saw in Bath. However, I did not find it enchanting here.  I realized that the problem was not in what surrounded me, but that there was something in me that did not let me appreciate things. I wanted to feel stimulated again. I wanted to look at the moon in awe again!

    A picture I took of Bath Abbey and the full moon.

    A picture I took of Bath Abbey and the full moon.

  2. In March 2012 I started working regularly again. As I live in the suburbs I had to take the train everyday to go to work. This meant waiting for the train for around 40 minutes, because there was no fixed schedule anymore and many trains were not working.  I also had to ride on the train for around one hour, squeezed between other passengers, facing daily cancellations of the service. The train crash which had taken place in February of that year and consequently killed 52 people was on my mind all the time. So, after a few days of this, I started complaining. And, the most common answer I got was: “Oh, it is because you have just arrived from England. This is not England, you know. Don’t worry, it is only until you get adapted.” “Get adapted to what?”, I thought. I never want to get adapted to travelling like this. No one should get adapted to regular fires on the train, and trains going out of the rails, crashing and even killing people. I wondered how people could say that. I was very disappointed with the majority, who accepted this and just sighed, lowered their heads and travelled in these conditions. So I started travelling on the train with a sign that said: “This reality is created by all of us” and I joined a group, “Usuarios Autoconvocados por los Trenes”, which demanded the State the urgent repair of the trains and railways with the decision that I would never adapt. Participating in this group became for me a way to cope with and to canalize some of my feelings in Buenos Aires.
Travelling on the train in Buenos Aires. Picture taken by a passenger. Contribution to the train group; evidence presented to the State.

Travelling on the train in Buenos Aires. Picture taken by a passenger. Contribution to the train group; evidence presented to the State.

Passengers having to walk on the rails after a train stopped. Picture taken by a passenger. Contribution to the train group, evidence presented to the State.

Passengers having to walk on the rails after a train stopped. Picture taken by a passenger. Contribution to the train group, evidence presented to the State.

After the tragic accident in February, in August the train that I take everyday to work went off the rails. Picture taken by Rodrigo Viera. This picture was shown in all the media.

After the tragic accident in February, in August the train that I take everyday to work went off the rails. Picture taken by Rodrigo Viera. This picture was shown in all the media.

3. One evening, when I was returning home on the train, after work, I witnessed a police persecution: a man appeared suddenly running and all of a sudden a policeman jumped on top of him, throwing him abruptly to the floor. The apparent criminal started pleading and crying, asking the policeman not to hit him, and reminding him he had a family. It was a very ugly situation, everybody looked worried and uncomfortable. Then the train stopped at one of the stations, the policeman removed the “criminal” from the train, and the train continued its way. I was observing the other passengers. Some were talking with one another, some of their faces showed fear, others sadness: the event seemed to have moved them. However, after 5 minutes, their faces had gone back to normalcy, plain again, and after some time, everybody looked as if nothing had happened. There I remembered how I had been once, a long time ago, very impressed and moved the first time I had seen a person looking for food in the trash. Now I saw these people daily, and they had become part of the city. I wandered if there would come a time soon when we would get used to police persecutions on the train. I thought I wanted to refuse to let this happen to me. I thought about how I, and this society, was starting to lose touch with the important things, how we were losing the capacity to be moved by others suffering, how we try not to feel and to look the other way. How we lose contact, how we separate from one another, how the political ideas divide us, and we lose touch, and we do not seek to understand the other, and how the distance grows, and dehumanization deepens. Because I had also thought on that train, what is it to be human if it’s not the capacity to be moved in empathy for the other? I thought about all this on the train, I wanted to cry, and I told myself that I should never forget what I had thought AND FELT.

These 3 experiences were to me like alerts and paved the way for me to take the decision to join Enlivened Learning. Like in the Pink Floyd song, I had become numb, but in my case, it had not been comfortably.

When Kelly and I started talking again at the end of 2012 and she offered me to participate in the project, I did not hesitate to meet them.  I saw this trip as an opportunity to be faced with new things, to meet new people, to wake up from the numbness and to re-connect.

On top of that, the proposal was so interesting; what they were doing was so admirable and intriguing for me. Since I was in high school I wandered about what learning really was, and asked myself if it could be something different from what I was experiencing. Then, in University, I enjoyed the subjects and lessons about alternative ways of education and then I tried to implement some of these things in my jobs. For my masters’ dissertation I had chosen to design a school which differed from the traditional system: from its purposes and curriculum to the maps of the building. Learning about different initiatives who had different views of education was my thing.

On top of this, they were learning about the education and ways of understanding the world from indigenous communities and social movements. I knew very little about this, so I was even more interested. Ironically, coming from a Latin American country, I had become more interested and learned more about indigenous education during Kelly’s unit in Bath, in the UK, on the other side of the world. This new knowledge had impacted me a lot and I wanted to learn more.

So, on January 3rd 2013, after having spent 6 days with a friend in another part of Brazil, I joined Kelly and Udi in Rio to start sharing their learning adventure. I was suddenly living and most of the time sharing a room, with a former lecturer and her husband, whom I had only met once before in a class.

I started learning a lot during that month, and at very different levels. I understood the importance of the project, which was not only learning about education alternatives anymore, it was experiencing another form of learning every day. Kelly and Udi were amazing, never treated me as a traditional student or research assistant and now I can say I consider them very good friends. Also, after watching some of the interviews and talking with them, I learnt how many of these communities considered the creation, construction and experiencing of their initiatives as a way of healing from past experiences, mostly related to colonization. I could really understand them, because, in my case, Enlivened Learning had become a way of healing myself from the despair I was feeling back home, and of growing in many different aspects.

I hope to be able to share these learnings and experiences in future posts. This post has a “Part 2” which will develop my most significant learnings. Now I have been part of this project for many months. The way I see the project now is very different and much deeper than how I saw it then, and although I have not been travelling with Kelly and Udi since February, I feel that Enlivened Learning has become a very important part of myself. I am writing this when I have only a couple of weeks left to join them in India and I could not be more excited.

“Mafalda” is a very famous Argentiean cartoon, which has portrayed the reality of the country throughout the years. Its main character is the girl, Mafalda. In this case, she is saying: “We are screwed guys! If we don’t hurry up to change the world, then it will be the world the one that changes us.”

“Mafalda” is a very famous Argentiean cartoon, which has portrayed the reality of the country throughout the years. Its main character is the girl, Mafalda. In this case, she is saying: “We are screwed guys! If we don’t hurry up to change the world, then it will be the world the one that changes us.”

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Museo da Maré

Museo da Maré

Posted by on Jun 5, 2013 in all posts, Brazil | 0 comments

As I have written about elsewhere (post on museums), museums have been an important site of learning for us on this journey. In these places different indigenous communities were reclaiming and representing their history and narratives through the form and institution of the museum. At the same time these various communities, including the people responsible for the Biblioteca da Floresta in Acre, where enlivening the museum by making it a place of learning and experience where the stories of those represented are felt in continuity with the present of these communities.

So I was particularly excited to go an visit a pioneering museum in Rio’s largest favela, or shanty town community, the Complexo da Maré. This large conglomeration of 16 different communities has a population of around 140,000 and a history that dates back to the 1940s. But the oldest favelas in the city emerged several decades earlier, see below.

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Rio de Janeiro, Museo da Maré, photo by Kelly

Before going to the Museo da Maré, Kelly, Marina, Patrick (my Brazilian cousin and sometime co-traveller) went to visit an exhibition in one of the city’s more traditional and oldest museums, the Museo da Repúplica, housed in the former presidential palace in Catete. This exhibition helped us understand more the historical origins of favela communities and the name favela itself. The exhibition was on the legendary spiritual and revolutionary leader, Antônio Conselheiro, now a national folk hero, who led a community of tens of thousands in the impoverished and draught-stricken northeast of the country at the end of the nineteenth century. I will not expand on this important episode of Brazilian history, the Canudos War, which pitted a flourishing religious cooperative community made up of the rural landless and a number of former slaves (slavery officially only ending in Brazil in 1888, one of the last countries in the Americas) against the newly proclaimed Republic. The War of Canudos was the military campaign which lasted between 1896-1897 and mobilised around five thousand government soldiers who ultimately prevailed over the Conselheristas (followers of Antônio Conselheiro) killing between ten and twenty thousand of them.

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Rio de Janeiro, Museo da República, photo by Udi

Favela is the name of a spiky shrub or small tree that grows in the Sertão or semi-arid lands of the Northeast Brazil in the region where Canudos is found, it is also the name of a hill there. When the battle was won the conscripted soldiers returned to Rio, then the capital, and waited for their promised reward of housing from the government, camping on the Morro da Providência by the port region of the city. The government never fulfilled its promise and the soldiers and their families set up home here, renaming their place Morro da Favela a kind of ironic reminder to the government of the place they had fought in. With this the first favela was born.

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Rio de Janeiro, Museo da República, Photo by Flávio Barros, 1897

So at the origins of favela we have a series of ingredients; the end of slavery and the entry of former slaves (without compensation, resources or adequate training) into the economy, the violent destruction of a self-sustaining and organising community that challenged the newly formed Republican state, the failed promise of housing in the city for returning soldiers and an influx of people from the impoverished countryside to the city.

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Rio de Janeiro, Museo da República, photo by Kelly

From one museums and origin story to another. Arriving in the Museo da Maré we are greeted by Luis one of its founders who generously and enthusiastically shows us around. The museum is situated in a large warehouse a couple of blocks down from the Avenida Brasil, the large highway that bisects Maré. The museum, the first of its kind, has been many years in the making, since 1989, initiating its life in the research of the TV Maré, a community station who was compiling oral histories for a programme about the history of Maré. Noting that the community was being transformed by government action and that many elderly residents were passing away and their stories forgotten the programme makers started compiling more systematically the oral histories, photographs and historical documents from residents. In 1997 some of these local researchers founded CEASM, Centro de Estudos e Ações Solidárias da Maré, the Center for Study and Solidarity Action of Maré, a local grass roots community development organisation, more formally institutionalising this memory archive. CEASM then founded the Museo da Maré in 2006 with support of the then ministry of culture’s progressive programme of supporting local cultural initiatives or Pontos de Cultura.

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Rio de Janeiro, Museo da Maré, photo by Kelly

In the Museum gathered stories, photos and documents of the residents from Maré have a ‘permanent’ display in the warehouse. I say ‘permanent’ both because the museum was undergoing a transformation when we visited and the layout was going to be updated, but also as Luis told us, because what is important here are the stories about this community and the memories people have rather than any of the objects themselves.

As the website description and aim of the museum states, and as Luis also narrated to us:

The intention of the Museo da Maré is to break with the tradition that the experiences to be remembered and historical places to be memorialised are those elected by the official, “winning”, version of history and because of that a version that limits the representations of history and memory of large portions of the population. Therefore, the Museo da Maré, as a pioneering initiative in the city, proposes to extend the concept of museum, so this is not restricted to the more intellectual social groups and the cultural spaces still inaccessible to the general population. The favela is a place of memory and therefore nothing is more meaningful than doing a museographic reading from such perception. [my translation from the website].

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Rio de Janeiro, Museo da Maré, photo by Kelly

The objects in the museum tell the story of the history of Maré through old photos, documents and a re-constructed wooden house on stilts which we walk through and see the various objects people would have made use of in the 1960s. Walking through the different sections of the museum we are taken through different significant historical moments of the community; the time of water when the houses were built on wooded stilts over the regularly flooded margins of the Guanabara Bay; the building and day to day life of family homes; the religious life of the community; the games children play(ed); and the contemporary problems of drug gangs and violence.

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Rio de Janeiro, Museo da Maré, photo by Kelly

The museum has been visited by many on outside Maré and the possibility of encounter that this space offers has been significant. With that said, as Luis put it and the Museo website reaffirms the key audience for the museum are residents themselves with numerous events, workshops, talks, guided visits and so on organised by the museum for the community.

The projects developed by the program [at the museum] are designed to encourage the creation of channels that strengthen community bonds among residents, driven mainly by historical and cultural identity. [my translation from museum website].

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Rio de Janeiro, Museo da Maré, photo by Kelly

We are taken into the wooden house on stilts that dominates the museum by our guides Luis and Lourenço and a flood of memories and emotions is unleashed with stories about living in this spaces, having to wade through water to get to work, of kids happily playing outside on the mud, of the religious life of the community, a syncretism of Christianity, Camdomble, Ubanda. A curious metal object sitting on the old gas stove also elicited memories. This was a metal comb that was heated on the stove, which most Afro-descendent women used in this period to straighten out their hair. The comb embodies and reminds us of dominant cultural norms and values of beauty and race at a time before Black Pride had emerged in Brazil.

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Rio de Janeiro, Museo da Maré, metal combe, photo by Kelly

These values and norms, and further forms of prejudice and discrimination continue to affect Afro-descendants in Brazil today. Further prejudice and discrimination is associated with the favela itself (see the next post on this) and those who live there. A space often referred to through all that it lacks (education, sanitation, work, culture) or through what it has in excess (violence, drugs), what gets left out are the living trajectories of these communities, their capacity to be creative in adverse urban environments and build communities with their own forms of organisation, social and cultural life. A place like Museo da Maré is a celebration of these qualities and one which countless other communities across Brazil have now replicated.
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Rio de Janeiro, Museo da Maré, photo by Kelly

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Arriving at the Marvelous City, a cidade maravilhosa

Arriving at the Marvelous City, a cidade maravilhosa

Posted by on May 23, 2013 in all posts, Brazil, on the road | 0 comments

Over the past few months we have written a lot about land and landscapes and forms of learning that emerge from these. It might then seem strange to write about enlivened learninga learning that tends to reconnect to place and communitywithin an intensively urban and highly unequal setting which is the city of Rio de Janeiro.

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Rio sunset, Copacabana Beach, Leme, photo by Udi

We have also been writing about identity, often about indigenous identity, about the traumas of colonialism and the role of learning in healing, in re-signifying and strengthening identities and providing the space and tools for creating other stories and possibilities. All these ingredients, in their particular way, can be found in this vast and complex city of Rio. As groups, say for instance those living in shantytowns, who have been historically marginalized seek to be more fully a part of the city, of its economy, its infrastructure, its culture and its production of knowledge, innovative forms of organization, social action and culture have been created which provide possibility and inspiration.

Of importance to us in our visit here were exciting initiatives emerging in Rio de Janeiros favelas or urban shantytowns, the occupied settlements that pepper the cityscape climbing up the granite hills or stretching outwards in the peripheries. In Rio around 1 million people from its total population of 6 million (1 in 6 people) live in these settlements, some of which date back to a hundred years ago.

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Rio, classic view from Cristo, photo by Udi

I have worked with different groups in favelas since my postgraduate work in Rio more than ten years ago. During this time I focused on children and young people who were living or had lived on the streets of the city, with the incentive of understanding more about how they managed to leave this way of life. I then focused on how young people living in the favelas organise in different groups and projects and create art, media, music in their struggles against inequality. Over the next few posts we will explore an initiative that has been at the vanguard of innovation in developing creative forms of media literacy and production from favela communities and in broadening access to higher education, for its residents.

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Rio, Cristo in the clouds, photo by Udi

I was very excited to arrive back in Rio. It is also my home, the place I grew up. The city could not have contrasted more to the loud animated tranquility of the forest we had left just a few days before at the Peru/Brazil border. There in the National Park we walked through rain-drenched jungle paths in search of giant otters, stayed in an eco-lodge with a tarantula hanging out in the bar and had one of my socks stolen by a forest rat in the night. (I still imagine fondly my disappeared sock serving as bedding for a rat family somewhere in the jungle).

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Rio city map

Landing in Rio the murmurs of the forest were replaced by hum and beat of city life, increased manyfold by the coming new year party which draws hundreds of thousands of people from across Brazil and beyond.

On the night we arrived we attend another ceremony, this time with around two million other people, gathering on the shores of Copacabana beach to greet the new year under a shower of fireworks.

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New Year at Copacabana beach, photo from http://www.emirates247.com/news/emirates/world-welcomes-2013-in-style-2013-01-01-1.489400

This ceremony started decades back when a few groups from the city’s Afro-Brazilian religious communities (Candomblé and Umbanda), predominantly living in the favelas, gathered dressed in the traditional white to lay offerings to the sea deity Yemanja to bring good fortune in the coming year.

Although members of the Candomblé and Umbanda communities have declined in numbers across Brazil, in particular due to the growing strength of evangelical churches, the outer form of the ceremony remains as most people still dress in white and many light candles in the sand and offer flowers to the sea. Despite the mass concentration of people and the loud music thundering from the stages and the mesmerising firework display, all sponsored by the city council and various corporations, a calm prevails in the sandy stretch as we wait for the Gregorian calendar to tick over at midnight.

I imagine a great global penumbra, a sweeping shadow of time, of midnight, traversing the planet greeted by cheering crowds, each place at midnight. A festive Mexican wave of fireworks and champagne and hugs and kisses. I imagine that festive wave only works in places with a Gregorian calendar or the mass media has penetrated. I guess we all celebrate the passage of big cycles of time somehow and here in Rio we have the help of Yemanja. Maybe that is why people come here, to feel her gentle embrace along these shores as we send her gifts in the hope of a good and peaceful coming year.

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Rio downpour gets people off the beach during Carnival, photo by Udi

For me it also feels good to be where I grew up, know people, feel embraced by the language and recognise the thickness of the air, the smell of sea, plants and car fumes. Actually, I am reminded now that at least two people in this journey, both carvers, one a First Nations person from Canada the other a Maori from New Zealand, have told me of how the thickness of the air gives them a sense of home. I suppose it is the same for me, shame it had to be such a strange mixture of fumes! But despite the chaos, the inequality, the pollution and lack of security something creative stirs in this place between the hills and the sea and animates the city and its vibrant and hospitable people.

 

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