Saving Brazil’s slum children
by Michael Erger –
Michael Erger befriends the children at the educational center in Cubatão.
I am riding in a small white car in São Paulo, Brazil with a middle-aged, white-haired woman dressed in a plain blue skirt, plain white blouse with red epaulets. She informs me that we will be traveling to see the work of The Salvation Army in a favella (Brazilian for slum) named Vila dos Pescadores (the Village of the Fishermen) in the city of Cubatão where she lived for three years before working at territorial headquarters. Major Joan Burton stops for petrol (gasoline) and we drive on to Cubatão.
Cubatão has a corps and an educational center for children. Children in Brazil go to school either in the morning or in the afternoon. The Army has a center that provides four sets of two-hour supplemental classes during the day. Children are fed a meal and a teacher works in coordination with the local school to give them additional educational support.
We arrive at the Village of the Fishermen, a large mass of shacks and buildings stretching one mile on swampland next to the river; many homes are actually on sticks above the river. There is an older section of town that has some landfill and there are a couple of short roads.
Salvation Army community center
The buildings of the older section are made of concrete blocks and The Salvation Army’s buildings are here. We pull up to one small building and park behind a van. Major Joan managed to raise some funds to buy the van a few years ago and she takes a good look at the tires after we get out of the car. A small older woman approaches her and says “Oi Chia” (Brazilian for “Hi, Aunt”). The people here have a wonderful custom of calling people who work with children “aunts.” I make out broken words asking if she has returned and her response that she is just visiting with this American. There is a little disappointment on the woman’s face.
a ‘street’ in Vila dos Pescadores, a slum in Cubatão.
We come through the door and there is a classroom full of third and fourth graders. Aunt Joan says “Good afternoon, children” and they scream back in unison “Good afternoon” and then there are some additional screams of hello from various children scattered around the room. The teacher comes and embraces Joan and gives her a kiss on both cheeks. The children are well behaved and orderly and most wear the t-shirts of the school. They are doing their homework, smiling, looking at me and whispering. The teacher says something and they half return to their bookwork. The room is clean. The walls are painted white and the floor is tiled. Everyone seems pretty happy here in this little oasis.
Aunt Joan gives a tour
Captains Richard and Sarah Oliver come into the room. They are British, as is Burton, and are in their early thirties. We make our way out of the classroom and into a small room where two children are receiving special attention from one tutor. We wind through the kitchen and three or four kitchen workers stop to hug and kiss and say “Oi Chia” and Joan asks about their families.
We wind into another building where there is a very small residence and Joan says, “Here is where I lived but it’s much too small for Richard and Sarah and their three children.” It is a two-room apartment completely surrounded by the facility. We go off to have a small cup of coffee.
Richard is talking about a boy who has been misbehaving. “He can do the work. He knows it, but you give him the paper and come back and see nothing because he’s bothering the others—touching ‘em on the head that sort of thing. I’ve got a solution for him today, made ‘em a little island to sit in right in the middle of the class with no one around him.”
(They always made me sit right next to the teacher first and then they slowly started to move the others away from me one at time. I decide not to tell them this.) Joan knows this place and it gives Richard and Sarah someone to confide in about any situation. One girl needed to change her shift. Elections are coming up and Joan gives advice about politicians. She got the playground from a politician’s pledge. “He said he would get me the land and build the playground and in the end I got the land. Not complaining, I didn’t think we’d get the land, so when I got that, I said, alright then now we just have to build the playground.” I ask Richard about some of the specifics and he tells me they have three classrooms and that they run the four sets of two-hour classes throughout the day and they have about 250 children and the crèche (nursery), which is separate.
Coffee ends and classes are just switching. All the students are coming up to hug and kiss “Oi Chia.” We walk into one class and it erupts briefly into pandemonium. The teacher quickly starts screaming at the students to be quiet, and they peel themselves off of Joan’s legs and run to their seats. The teacher gives me a little wink. I ask a couple of boys what they like best about this place. Richard tells them to be nice. One says, “the food” and then the other agrees, “yes, the food.” In each classroom there are some boys who are about three years older than the other students. Richard explains that if they fail one class during the year they are held back and so we have to fight to get them to pass. “The key is education with the goal that one day they might get a job besides being a maid or a laborer.”
Financial reality—spiritual needs
I ask him how many of the students are sponsored by people like me. “Well, all of them. The territory can help us out in a bind but really we generate all our own money. There are of course a few extras and these are on lists waiting to sponsored but within one year they will pick up a sponsor.” I ask about his day and he explains that they are at the facility at seven in the morning and they stay until five or six. Then they go home and have dinner and most nights return to hold some type of spiritual service: junior corps or the women’s group or music. And Sundays they have services in one of the classrooms although sometimes people are flowing out the door. He hopes to convert the playground into a covered facility that could double as the church and an indoor playground, but that would take about $40,000 to build because the engineering to support a building with a roof on the swamp is complex.
We walk a couple of blocks to another building, the crèche. The children are sleeping on mats when we arrive. One little boy grabs my leg and says “Oi Chio” (“Hi Uncle”) I say, “Oi tudo bem” (“Hi, how are you?”) He talks in Portuguese very quickly and it is explained to him that I speak English.
A walk through the village
Joan and I walk in the village. The cement-block houses give way to wooden shacks. We walk on an elevated walkway made of slatted boards, like a ladder placed horizontally. I see the river below and the boards creak from my weight. We keep walking and twisting and walking among these slats with shacks on both sides and old cans, plastic bottles and various trash floating in the water underneath. We come to some girls. “Oi Chia.” We pass a man working on his house. “Oi Chia.” We meet a fourteen-year old girl with a week-old baby. Chia holds the baby and the baby holds my finger. The mother’s a former student. “Not one of the successes I’m afraid.”
We pass some young guys with tattoos on their bodies, who must be drug dealers. “Oi Chia.” “Not one of successes I’m afraid.” I realize that the drug boys used to be in the school. We pass three eight-year-old boys kicking around a flat “futbol.” One says “Oi” and talks to Joan. She talks back to him. He has asked to return to the school, it seems he quit last year. She tells him he has to get back on the waiting list, that it would not be fair to the other boys waiting now. There are 300 waiting. I wonder what will become of the boy.
I am fascinated by the drug-boys and the fact that they have so much respect for her and are very cordial when talking. She tells me about one of her favorites who died recently, found shot in the swamps. He used to be a junior cadet and then later started into the drug culture. One time he was in running in the swamp to get away. A couple of days later some boys arrived to tell her that his foot was very bad. “Bring him here then,” and she bandaged his wounds. “Not one of our successes.” We meet another young man coming home—he has found a job at a factory, “One of our successes.” We meet another girl who also found employment and will become a Salvation soldier next month, “One of our successes.”
We drive back to São Paulo. Later that night I’m awash in these images of children, of poverty, a labyrinth of tiny walkways and people coming out to say “Oi Chia.” I keep going back to the images of the drug-kids and the phrase: “Not one of our successes.” It starts to bother me and I decide that I just don’t entirely agree. Who knows? The boys came through the school and were given some happy, loving moments in their lives. They see the good that the Army is doing and help to protect the soldiers. And I think about the thief who died on the cross next to Jesus and asked his forgiveness and was granted entry to heaven. I wonder when this boy was shot, did he do the same?
I am sure one day that Joan will walk through heaven stopping to hug and kiss all the souls from Cubatão and I hope that she walks around a corner and there are some of the drug-boys who when the blood was spilling from their young, hardened bodies accepted the fire and when Joan arrives they scream out “Oi Chia.”