Arvore Seca –Early Education on the Salt of The Earth

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“Não facilite os crimes.”

These were the instructions we were given by an older man checking glucose levels outside the Engenho Novo rail station. His service operated on a card table and clapboard sign. Nearby men shuffled and grunted at a café, watching highlights from the previous days Olympic events spliced in between images of a bus workers’ strike, crouching police, and arguing celebrities. Our contact and translator, Annabel, was late (she later admitted to falling headfirst into the relaxed, elastic scheduling of “carioca time”), and we were looking up the church she intended to take us to on Google Maps. Much of our trip would come to be defined by planning a meeting over messenger or facebook, then narrowly missing the person we intended to see.

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In our experience, Brazilians have been extremely wary of foreigners’ expensive possessions. The roadside physician told us the best way to avoid getting robbed was to avoid attracting attention to yourself. It was 08:00, people were on their way to work. We saw little likelihood of getting robbed, a group of three in broad daylight.

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When we arrived at Paróquia São Tiago Apóstolo church, in Lins de Vasconcelos, we were greeted by Maria, the leader of the Sal da Terra crèche. She led us around the compound, which contained a church, a large pavilion, and a smaller office building with a back garden. A drainage ditch ran past the office, filled with sewage. Everything else was spotless. This became a recurring theme: residents do their best to maintain clean, healthy spaces, but the exteriors give way to vagrancy and lack of attention from the municipal government. Around the awning in the yard behind the office, children’s paintings of their homes in the favelas, Christ the Redeemer, and other iconic images of Rio lined the wall. We were waiting for two French Olympic swimmers, who were visiting with Graines de Joie, a humanitarian group active in Romania, Brazil, and Burkina Faso. The group provided the crèche with supplementary money, as did Air France.

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While we waited, Maria, the crèche leader, explained to us Sal da Terra’s complicated financial circumstances. Although the crèche had been active for 31 years, it was forced to integrate with the Rio de Janeiro ministry of education (based in Brasilia) in 2003. Overnight, Sal da Terra and many other favela crèches were expected to have fully trained staff in a variety of positions. Volunteers were no longer adequate, and many places which could not meet the new standards were immediately shut down. Every year, more crèches suffer a similar fate, as they are unable to meet the city’s standards, despite receiving little to no increase in funding or assistance. The municipal government also funds its own daycares, and if Sal da Terra were to shut down, the children would be absorbed into whatever municipal crèche is closest. Almost all of them are at or over capacity, so this would be impossible, and the mothers of the children would be forced to quit their jobs, or make concessions.

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Only 25% of the children in Brazil in need of a daycare have access to one. A national organization called FUNDEB distributes funding for organizations supporting basic education. This is less than 50% of the crèche’s operating cost. In São Paulo, the city government provides the remaining support. São Paulo invests over 600 reais per child, per month. Minas Gerais invests a similar amount. Rio de Janeiro only receives about 220 reais. To exacerbate matters, the city often “poaches” employees from the favela crèches, offering them a more stable job and higher pay.

Two of the priests we spoke with, and more volunteers who donated time to caring for the children, were currently undergoing training courses in order to meet the Ministry of Education’s standards. They said despite the difficulty and time commitment required for the adjustment, there have actually been many positive benefits. The crèche was now becoming a center for early childhood education. Many people take for granted the social and communication skills taught in pre-kindergarten daycares and schools – growing up without the ability to sit still, respect authority figures, and interact with classmates can negatively affect the growth of a child. When one grows up in an area similar to a war zone, the stability of school can sometimes be the only outlet. Favela communities are well-documented for the violence and instability which can be prevalent. It is easy to imagine these areas as lawless, sprawling slums, but many have progressed beyond this simplified image over the course of decades, evolving into viable neighborhoods which provide for themselves whatever the city cannot, and improvising the rest. They said in Brazil, it’s common for people to buy private healthcare and private schooling if they can afford to, as the state-provided equivalent is generally inadequate.

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We interviewed various people from the crèche for a few hours, and then the swimmers arrived. After a short, trilingual meet-and-greet, we went outside to prepare to visit the crèche itself. Two athletes from the Rio games were representing the charity – Frederick Bousquet, who was at his final games (he was 35) and holds the world record for 50m freestyle, and Lorys Bourelly, who competed in the 200m freestyle in his second Olympics. Sal da Terra is in a favela called Árvore Seca (dry tree), consisting of a single street that winds up the hill. The favela was one of 12 communities formally recorded in the neighborhood, on a hill that runs up the slope of the Tijuca National Park. It hosts a baile funk, a funk party, every year, and is a hub of Afro-Brazilian culture as part of the Complexo de Vas network of favelas on the hill.

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We piled into 5 cars with the swimmers, two reps from the charity, two priests, two cooks, a volunteer French/Portuguese translator, and various volunteers at the crèche. As opposed to Copacabana, which is very modern and clean, this area lacked public sanitation and looked more like a developing country. Graffiti covered every other building. Some people had barbed wire around the gates to their house, others didn’t. In the neighborhood below the favela there were shops, cafes, car repair places, but the favelas was strictly residential, with no organized or institutional services, except for one building which advertised Maui Thai on Thursdays. In the morning, around 11:00, nobody was around, but when we left in the afternoon many kids and people were hanging about and talking, riding bikes, and conducting errands.

IMG_9583.jpgYou know you have entered the favela because at one point, the road is blocked off by a DIY checkpoint, where you have to slowly weave through barrels while the UPP (Police Pacification Unit) watches from behind a wall. The police never enter the favela, and there is normally only one street entrance and exit. According to Annabel, the entrance to the favela her boyfriend lives in is quite different – you have to walk through a building where a large group of men bag drugs and clean guns. They’re non-confrontational but they “cannot know if you carry a camera.” On the way up the hill in our cars we saw a shirtless teenager walking by casually holding a pistol with a banana clip in it. He had two more clips poking out the waistband pocket of his camo trackies. We wound up the street and people were out working on the their houses, washing their cars, and kids were playing with dogs. Most of the houses in the favela had unfinished top levels, with rebar sticking out and piles of brick off to the side in case the residents want to add another floor. Some of the houses had massive satellite dishes, and everyone had electricity. It was peaceful, but from the numerous stories we had heard, the quiet engendered a tense atmosphere.

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The crèche was built in the 80s by C&A. The building was bright yellow and decorated with the Olympic mascot. From the inside, it looked like a typical daycare. It was in a walled yard and had three stories, with a refectory and office on the ground floor and a little play area outside. The second floor had classrooms, and the terrace wound around to the back of the building where there were showers, picnic tables, and a play area. There were maybe 30 kids there in matching blue t-shirts, all around 2-3 years old. The focus of the visit was Bousquet, who was delivering gifts to the children and letting them crawl all over him. We ate lunch and listened to some speeches by the older leaders, and took a break to sing a samba tune.

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On the balcony, we discussed the main division residents of favelas like Arvore Seca saw in the Rio 2016 games. While the Olympic pillars of inclusiveness, participation, and celebration of sport were appreciated and loved by all, the implementation of the games were poorly managed, and many communities in the North Zone felt left out. The south has already received so much development and investment, so why would it need any more? Very little of the Olympics touched the north. Very little of the corruption which is virulent in the planning and construction of Olympic venues has touched the north either. The crèche volunteers cared little about this – they had their own issues to deal with. Underfunding is a source of constant frustration, one which has and will exist long after the closing ceremony. The crèche leaders did not think that the Olympics themselves siphoned away their precious funding – this had always been an issue, one which was too expensive and complicated to directly protest in Brasilia

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To learn more about the crèche we visited, you can go to the Graines de Joie website.

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