"Notes from the Field": 
   Journal Entry # 1: 
Rio de Janeiro   

[I’m sending this from Sri Lanka, about the journey to Brazil two weeks earlier.]


I’m on the first leg of a journey that will take me to six countries on four continents in two weeks.  I don’t “get” jet lag anymore.  I KEEP jet lag.

I’m in Rio to visit the work of SEOP, an organization working in the poor communities in the greater Rio area.  I am met at the airport by Waldemar Boff, founder and guiding light of SEOP.   Although we had exchange emails for over one year,  I had no idea what he looked like.  As I walked out of the Customs area, I saw a gentle-looking man with mustache, goatee and twinkling eyes.  When he sees me, a radiant smile beams from his face.  He raises his arms and says, “My dear Sharif!  You are mostly welcome!”   I also meet Regina, his friend and the head of SEOP’s environmental programs.  He goes on to wheel my bags to his waiting vehicle, a nondescript and generic foreign car.

A Dashed Dream
Going to Rio was one of my childhood dreams.  I remember as a child seeing a picture of Rio in National Geographic, with the statue of Jesus looming over the city.  I thought that the people of Rio must be very spiritual to create such a huge monument.

So, imagine my excitement when Waldemar pointed out of window of the car to the hazy hills beyond and said, “There is the Jesus statue.”  I stared along the line of his finger, seeing only the hills.  “Where?”  “Over there”, he said, as he continued to negotiate the Rio traffic with the other hand.

On the far hill was a barely discernible point, much shorter than the radio towers on the other hills.  I stared at it, feeling my childhood illusion melting in the face of adult realities.  The photo I had seen must have been taken from a helicopter, which erased the perspective.  The statue of Jesus wasn’t 200 stories tall after all.

“I thought it would be bigger,” I said, realizing as soon as I said it how lame that must sound.


A Shelter from the Storm of Poverty:
Marci is a tall black woman.  She’s standing in the middle of a large kitchen, pots of rice, beans and fish cooking on all burners.  Marci is surrounded by hugging teenage girls.  The teenage girls are hugging their newborn babies.  A hug-fest all around.

I am visiting SEOP’s shelter for pregnant adolescent girls in the Baixada region of greater Rio.

Various circumstances have led to the girls needing the shelter.  Some are here because their parents cannot support them and their so-to-be-born children.  Or, boyfriends who abandoned them.  Or, a life of gangs and drugs.

All of the girls I interviewed were clear: the shelter was the best place they had ever lived.

As I sat on the side of one of their beds, listening to their stories, I noticed the shelter environment was clean, neat and pleasant.  Brightly painted walls, neatly made beds (three beds to a room, along with two cribs), and, remarkably, an atmosphere completely free of the smells of baby urine.   No crying, unhappy babies.  This was one of the nicest teen shelters I have ever visited, anywhere in the world.

As we all crowded into one of the bedrooms, the stories that the girls told of their former lives was grim.  However, far more frightening than their past were their views of their future.  Not one of them had a realistic plan for their future.  They all wanted “a nice house”, but did not have a clue how to get one.  One girl said she wanted to be a lawyer, then asked, “what does a lawyer do”?  One girl, gently swinging her baby on her hip, said she wanted to be a model.  Yet another, who sucked her thumb for most of the interview, said that her future occupation was “to be a singer in my church”.

On the other hand, most of these girls know how to make money right now.  According to Marci, 90% of the girls were involved in prostitution before entering the shelter.  “We have had problems with Jane’s mother.  She tries to take Jane out of the shelter so she can use her in prostitution.”  She looks over at Jane, 16, playing with her 6 month old baby.  “Jane is very pretty; she would make her mother a lot of money.”

What happens to the nine girls and four babies in the shelter is not clear.  Two of the girls are not pregnant and therefore do not qualify to stay in the shelter.  One of them, 25 years old, is technically too old to stay.  Marci says simply, “I couldn’t turn her away.”   They all take classes in food service, but are unclear how they can apply their education after leaving the shelter.

SEOP’S shelter, while an outstanding facility, should be rounded out with other related activities that will provide a more complete safety net around the young girls.  These activities could include:
· A half-way house, where the girls would practice independent living; going out to jobs, school and other activities.  The girls could continue to co-care for their children and support each other in such an environment.
· Career/life counseling, giving them a set of realistic life goals and the personal self-esteem and power that will help them resist the pressures of life on the streets.
· SEOP-sponsored economic activities that provide both job skills and a wage for the girls.

One thing is certain: while they are in the SEOP shelter, they will be bathed in a constant atmosphere of love, caring, acceptance and attention.


Vila Leopoldina isn’t on the other side of the tracks.  It’s ON the tracks (or what’s left of them).

Decades ago, the Brazilian government cut a narrow gauge railroad track through the steep mountains and green valleys that make up the beautiful Atlantic Forest that hugs the coast of Brazil.

Years ago, the railroad that carried coffee and bananas was abandoned and the rails were pulled up.  A perfect place for squatters.  Now, this narrow rut sliced into the naked rock above a swift-moving river has become the home for about 1,600 of Brazil’s poorest people.  It’s a tiny village with an imposing name:  Vila Leopoldina de Pedro do Rio.

Standing at the entrance of SEOP’s community center in Vila Leopoldina  provides a panoramic view of the river swirling below and the slightly less poor village hugging the opposite cliffside.  (The opposite side of the river is a different village altogether.  Although they are within shouting distance of each other, there is no bridge and therefore no contact between the two -- although hormonally driven teenagers have been known to cross the swift, rocky and dangerous river.)

The SEOP community center  is the only structure in Vila Leopoldina that’s over 400 square feet, and apparently is one of the few structures not at risk of tumbling into the river in a hard rain.

Vila Leopoldina is a community of despair.  The narrowness of the old railroad right of way forces people to live very close to one another; everyone’s poverty is obvious to everyone else.  As I walk along the dirt rut that passes for Main Street, I see several houses made of wood, perched on the steep rocks on either side, walls leaning in like a house of cards ready to collapse.  These are the ones most susceptible of tumbling down the hillside in a heavy rain.

Most of the houses are one room structures made of the light weight brick that is common to Rio.  The family does its cooking, cleaning, eating and sleeping in one room.  (The few “upscale” homes have two rooms: a bedroom/livingroom and a kitchen.) No bathrooms.

I ask my SEOP guide, Jose Maria Moraes, how people manage when they have to go to the toilet.  “They shit into a newspaper, and then throw it down the hill into the river.  It’s how they get rid of their trash, too.”  He pointed out the community waste disposal system at work; a ravine running down to the river, filled with garbage and human waste.  “This will pile up here until the next hard rain.  Then, it gets washed into the river and they will start all over again.”

We walked on, passing several adults sitting on the bare dirt, just staring ahead.  Jose Maria would exchange a few words with them.  Not much reaction, no curiosity toward the black stranger who doesn’t speak Portuguese.  We encounter several children playing in the dirt near a long-abandoned car.  (I make instant friends by taking their pictures with my digital camera, then showing them the results a few seconds later.  An instant ice-breaker.  The first group starts rounding up their friends for photo sessions.  I take dozens of pictures.)

We visit several residents in this tiny community.  Getting into the houses took a bit of body work.  “Watch your head” to avoid the sharp edge of an overhanging corrugated roof.  “Watch your step” to negotiate the slick rock and mud sides of a cliff to climb up to a house.  “Watch that wall” as I stand near an interior wall that has partially collapsed inward.

Only one of the dozen or so adults I met smiled.  They all had the resigned look of people who had come to realize that they would never wake up from the bad dream that was their life.  One woman sat on the side of her bed, clutching her 22 day old son, the most recent of seven children.  As soon as she could, she would leave this child with the others and go looking for odd jobs like cleaning or manual labor.  Her husband goes to Rio looking for odd jobs, or to sell fruit.  (Or, that’s what he says.  He could easily be one of the hordes of men and women on the streets of Rio, trying to steal something from one of the wealthy tourists.  In Rio, the streets are literally paved with gold -- or with credit cards and cameras.  “Wealthy” means anyone who has more than you.)

The only smiles you see in Vila Leopoldina are from the children involved in the various SEOP programs, from child care for the youngest to soccer for the teenage boys.  The SEOP community center is an oasis of decency in a vast desert of misery.  Whether or not the SEOP oasis is big enough, organized enough and empowering enough to make a difference in the lives of the 1,600 souls along the rocky track remains to be seen.

One interesting SEOP project is that the children sell the “Jornal da Amizade”, a weekly newspaper of village news.  (I was told that the children write the articles themselves; however, from a brief glance at the subject matter of the articles and size of the vocabulary being used, I doubt if many of the articles were written by the children I saw.)  I happened to be present when the first hordes of eight to ten year olds ran out of the SEOP community center, waving their newspaper.  I was an easy sales target.  The ones who get out first get the closest and easiest sales; the later ones have to walk further and hear more “I already bought it” rejections.

What’s next for Vila Leopoldina?  There are some obvious challenges to overcome:
· unless SEOP finds some way to overcome the despair and dejection among the adults, the children will face the same reality when as they grow older.  After-school programs and soccer can only go so far; what Vila Leopoldina and other villages like it need is hope for a different reality.
· On a concrete level, SEOP could help the village initiate some village sanitation programs.  For example, communal baths, toilets and perhaps cooking facilities could be created.  This would have a dramatic change on the health and the outlook of the adults in the village.

Most importantly, SEOP must engage the community in an empowerment and esteem-building process that would lead to a change in the outlook of general despair and resignation I experienced in the village on the tracks.


In every community that stands a chance of survival, there is at least one figure who rises above the problems, who greets the mind-numbing disempowerment of a dysfunctional society with a vision of empowerment and transformation.  When I was growing up in Camden, New Jersey, her name was Dorothy Pitts; when I worked as an organizer in various communities in the South, she had various names:  Louise Sellars in the Five Points community, Phyllis Lynch in Cherry, Roberta Williams in Concord.

In greater Rio, her name is Vasti.  She started out running a child care center for the local children under a tree.  She has progressed to a SEOP supported child care center for 150 children (30 of them receiving round-the-clock care), cared for by a staff of seven.

Vasti has manifested many of her dreams.  However, like a true visionary, she sees into a future that has yet to materialize.  When I ask her about her future plans, she raises her voice and speaks so rapidly even my translator has difficulty keeping up.  “A factory!  Right there!”, gesturing with her hands to a nondescript vine covered lot.  “Our people need work; right now, they go to Rio to try to find work.  We need a place for people to work right here.”

“And dormitories!  Right there!  These little ones will need some place to live when they grow up.  Their houses are so bad now.”

“We need something for the girls to do.  The boys have soccer [a SEOP supported project], but the girls are getting in trouble, too.  Some of the girls are doing `train surfing’, getting on top of the train cars and standing up.”  She demonstrates the surfing movement, to the laughter of the other SEOP workers gathered to talk to me.

People like Vasti think things through.  They know their communities and know what is needed now and in the future.  Their drive is enormous, their energy unlimited, their ability to infect other members of the community with their vision is the key difference between despair and determination to succeed.

I noticed that I did not see enough Vasti’s, either in this or in other SEOP communities.  SEOP’s program of community empowerment and self-reliance must be accelerated if the communities are to be self-determining and self-sustaining.   SEOP can put all of their energies into identifying and supporting men and women like Vasti in the poor communities.  It is the best way to achieve long-term sustainability for the poor, in Rio and elsewhere.

We’ve heard about Rio from various bossa nova songs; it’s startling to actually encounter Ipanema beach, or Corcovado.

My last day, we actually spent in Rio, doing the sightseeing/tourist type things.  Most memorable was ascending the hill and actually getting a close-up look at the Christ the Redeemer statue.  The last part of the ascent is on foot, a penance for too many chocolate milk shakes and Coca-Colas.  The statue really is impressive (childhood fantasies aside) and the view from that height is stunning.  (Most of the time, looking out from that height toward a city means you are in an airplane about to land; I kept waiting for the scene to move!)

My only “demand” was that I walk on Ipanema Beach.  I found it disappointing; dirty, incredibly crowded, and the destination of every Western tourist in Brazil.  Lots of fat, pasty bodies.

As for the famous Rio thong bikini:  yes, there were plenty of women who can only be described as “heart-stopping”.  Described perfectly in the song “The Girl from Ipanema”.  However, there were plenty of other women that Gilberto did not describe:  short and plain and 7 months pregnant -- in a thong bikini.  Not nearly as lyrical.  Some things should be against the law.  (So as not to be accused of being sexist, I would say 300 pound men in thong swimsuits ought to be a capital offense.  Where are the Japanese whalers when you need them?)

After touring the city and prowling the beaches, Waldemar and Regina took me to Regina’s family’s home on Corcovado hill for a shower and rest before dropping me at the airport.  At sunset, Waldemar took me to the back of the house, to “the window that looks out on Corcovado -- oh how lovely!”  It was a perfectly still evening.  The light was perfect; lighting up the clouds above in a rosy glow.  Children laughed from the surrounding hillsides, still sporting the ubiquitous kites that seem to be the principal plaything for children.  Perfect.


The guy at the ticket counter in Rio looked at my ticket to Newark, frowned, looked at me and said, “You must be going to Newark on business.”  I laughed and asked him why he said that.  With a straight face, he replied, “I’ve been to Newark”.


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