Young indigenous women block violence in Brazil

The women are reconnecting with their African roots and finding ways to intervene in the violence that targets their community, by Amy Hall

Rivers of Meeting Archive, Transformance Institute

In Brazil, young indigenous women are reconnecting with their African roots and finding ways to intervene in the violence that targets their community.

Where the Tocantins and Itacaiúnas Rivers meet, in the Amazonian city of Marabá, sits the pioneer Afro-indigenous community of Cabelo Seco.

Marabá has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. Mining for gold, iron and other resources has left the region highly militarized. The Afro-indigenous population – particularly young men – are often at the sharp end. People of African descent in Brazil are over 20 per cent more likely to be killed than any other ethnic group.

Arts educator Manoela Souza co-ordinates the Rios de Encontro (Rivers of Meeting) project with young women aged 16-22 years old, working with transformational community arts, including dance, theatre, visual arts and video. There is also a library project and a weekly programme of cultural events led by the young co-ordinators. All have an ecological and community-building focus.

‘The community faces violence as a result of the exploitation of the Amazon. The boys in particular suffer a lot of police violence,’ says Souza, who has lived in Cabelo Seco for 10 years.

Rios de Encontro made the controversial decision to start a dialogue with the military police as a way of trying to stop them killing young people. ‘We saw the way police stop and search our young people in a very aggressive way. The police themselves come from histories of racist humiliation and experiences of extreme violence,’ explains Souza.

The military police are now actively involved with Rios de Encontro, taking part in bike rides, festivals and performances. Souza says that working with the police in this way has made it easier for members of the community to intervene in instances of police violence. ‘For the young people it’s important because when they work with the police they can see they are capable of change. They can see the results of this dialogue,’ she explains.

The project ensures the young community artists reconnect with their heritage, primarily through music, percussion and dance. ‘African dance is not just dance: it’s healing, community, respect for life, everything integrated. It’s also the relationship with the rivers and forests of the Amazon, all connected,’ says Souza.

‘When people have knowledge and memory of their roots they become stronger. They will defend their community if they have a clear identity.’