issue 248 - October 1993
Drumbeats of hope
on the hill
Where the state is unable or unwilling to provide an education,
parents and communities are stepping in. Didier Bloch goes to the Maria
da Conceição school in North-East Brazil and finds a hive of activity.
Midday. Little Selma shivers briefly under the spurt of cold water which flows slowly over her copper-skinned and slight body. Not even the cloudy sky of the tropical ‘winter’ could prevent the washing ritual. And then comes lunch, avidly devoured by the hundred pupils in the Maria da Conceição community school. Hygiene, food and alternative education. Who would say that we are in the most populous suburb of Recife, in Brazil’s poorest region?
We are in fact in the Morro da Conceição (Conception Hill), famous for its activism. And hidden behind blue gates, under the huge mango tree, is the school, a real symbol of popular resistance.
The community-schools movement in Brazil is at its most active in Recife. These schools are formed by parents whose children are unable to get a place at state schools. There are more children than places at the state schools and entrance after the first grade is by examination so it becomes harder and harder for a child to get in. Many children, particularly if they are poor and black, are never given that chance.
Dark and skinny, at 14 Eronildo was once such a child. He could not read or write, and kept failing to get accepted by the state school. Now, in the community school – where ‘you don’t have to keep your mouth shut, because everyone is a friend’ – he has all that behind him and is studying in the equivalent of secondary school first year. He has learnt African dances and has already played in the small percussion group.
As his parents are unable to pay for a private school, where would Eronildo be were it not for the community schools? And where would Mônica, Anderson and Jarlene be, living with mothers who earn less than 60 dollars a month as a cleaner, waitress or seamstress?
The answer lies in the streets of Recife, in the police pages of the papers, and in Amnesty International’s reports. Over ten million Brazilian children live on the streets, exposed to the violence of the traffic, the police and the death squads.
With its slopes which are unsafe in the rainy season, and its slums bursting with unemployed workers, the hill community of Morro da Conceição is a fairly typical example of the urban landscape in Brazil. What makes it different is the way its inhabitants have mobilized so forcefully to counteract the absence or inadequacy of state schools.
‘Here the parents don’t pay,’ explains Lúcia. ‘When they can, they help out with a kilo of rice or beans. On the other hand, participation in the monthly meetings is obligatory. In these gatherings, the school’s work is discussed and at times criticized. But there is also a lot of laughter, tea-drinking and even exercises in group dynamics where the parents reveal themselves to be more childish than their offspring...’
Another novelty: the school staff are chosen by the community. This was the case with Nadja, currently the school co-ordinator, whose advancement would have been impossible in any public institution. ‘I started off six years ago in the school canteen. Now I teach and am also responsible for part of the administration,’ she says.
The choice of teachers depends more upon political commitment than upon university training. However, to encourage study, those who are qualified earn more. Everyone agrees: ‘It is very important that the child learns to read and write, and this requires a certain degree of technical ability. But it should always be remembered that the real objective is to help turn the children into citizens in every sense.’
‘Today I’m going to break everything!’ shrieks an almost hysterical voice coming from a tot not even waist-high. And he starts to do just that. This form of less peaceful expression is not rare. ‘Many children come to us with emotional imbalances,’ Lúcia admits, ‘since we give priority to those from the worst circumstances. Hence the importance of the methodology that we develop. In Brazil, poor and black continues to be synonymous with stupid. We aim to strengthen self-esteem, recovering positive aspects of popular culture so that the children begin to believe in themselves.’
What Lúcia refers to as ‘learning through cultural practice’ was started by simple visits to parents while they were at work. ‘The results were surprising. Both parents and children were very enthusiastic,’ she remembers. The next step was to explore the rich and varied culture in the neighbourhood, in particular that of African origin which was brought over by the slaves and is still very much alive. This is how the study of the dance rhythms of maracatu, samba and frevo made its way into the school.
Parents have appreciated the school’s work for a long time. One of them, Pedramérico, is a real fan: ‘Maria da Conceição doesn’t just educate or give the kids a good time. It does both of those things but, better still, it goes out of its way to liberate the child’s intelligence. It’s a place where they think in educational terms but without losing the ability to laugh.’
Translated by Sarah Bailey, who works with Didier Bloch for Zarabatana, a media group working on development issues and based in North-East Brazil.
Painters not professors
A university professor in Latvia today has to think very carefully before inviting painters into her flat. It is likely to cost eight months’ salary to have her hall and kitchen painted.
A teacher of my acquaintance, reprimanding one of her pupils for neglecting his studies, was given the scornful reply: ‘You want to teach me how to live? Just look down at your feet. What is the use of knowing all the things that you know? You can’t even afford to buy new shoes because even the cheapest would cost you half your month’s salary.’
Another pupil wrote in an essay that he had changed his attitude towards his literature teacher since her husband succeeded in business: he could not take her seriously before.
This evidence of teachers’ low status is all the more shocking because in Latvia we have traditionally taken education very seriously. Since the seventeenth century, when the first Latvian schools appeared, we have always made the education of our children a priority. Latvia was one of the first European countries to solve the problem of illiteracy, which was almost eradicated in the nineteenth century. It would be almost unbelievable to find someone in Latvia today who couldn’t read and write. And before the Second World War Latvia had a greater proportion of its population in higher education than any other country in Europe.
With the introduction of the Soviet system some 50 years ago the positive attitude towards education began to change. The prestige of good education fell. This was achieved, first of all, by paying extremely low salaries to highly educated professionals like doctors, engineers, and school or university teachers. Second, the Soviet system was geared to the average pupil or student. Teachers had to spend most of their time helping the slower pupils to catch up. They could even be punished for having too many bad pupils. The children were expected to understand, memorize and reproduce. Creativity and a questioning attitude were ruled out. This was supposed to help students as they became adults to fit into the huge state mechanisms, where everybody had to do what was expected of them and not ask questions.
Finally there was the curriculum. Under the Soviet system all schools used the same textbook for the same subject. This had some positive and some negative aspects. On the positive side, it ensured one definite level of education throughout the country. More negatively, however, pupils were all given the same dictatorial view of the world. Many of these textbooks are still in use today. There is no money to buy new ones.
The age of dictatorship is now over. The end of Soviet rule has brought new ways of working, of thinking and of educating our children. The new education law stresses the responsibility of parents for their children’s education. Parents and teachers understand this, and there have been many moves to improve the school system. There has been a mushrooming of ‘vocational’ schools: business, commerce and applied arts. Humanities, too, has started to change.
But all this takes time – and money. Education is going to become expensive. If parents want extra tuition they have to pay – not a large sum at the moment, and the State pays subsidies to families with children. But it is becoming more difficult to make ends meet. So students cannot afford to take up academic careers, and academics are leaving Latvia because of low pay and low status. Someone working in a private company might earn four or even five times as much as a university professor.
I would like to think that these problems will disappear and that one day we will educate our children in circumstances where they will want to be professors as well as painters. There was once a saying that every second person in Latvia is a poet. It will take time, but I hope that this will become a reality once again.
Sigma Ankrava is Professor of English at Riga University.