Saturday, 31 January 2009

Creative chaos or just chaos?!

Our group's closing celebration

What a day!

I had spent half of the previous afternoon poring over the World Social Forum programme. It's the size of the Saturday Guardian, font so small it hurts the eyes, FULL of workshops, films, cultural activities etc, most of them in Portuguese. More than 2000 events to choose from. I circled everything I was interested in, agonised over which to go to, and finally made my choices.

So. Our bus left West Belem at 7:30am to arrive in time for the 8:30 sessions. We did a conscientious impression of a Turkish bath for ninety minutes, and got out thankfully, into BLAZING sunshine, at the first campus. Set off walking. Walked, limped, crawled across the largest scrubland campus I've ever seen, arriving more than an hour late for the start. Found the room. Ah. They've decided to run it in Portuguese after all. Never mind, there's a film on about the Amazon, let's go to the cinema.

So. Got to the cinema. Blissfully air-conditioned. Hang on, that's not the Amazon, it's Marilyn Monroe in not many clothes!
We stayed for 15 minutes for a film which should have been called "Cars, Cakes, Breasts and Hitler" but was purporting to some kind of social analysis, inasmuch as I could tell from the Portuguese commentary. Next!

This next session was the one I was really looking forward to. Women (I am one)'s Empowerment (wot I did my dissertation on) in Amerindian communities (such as the one we're about to move to) in Amazonia. Hurrah! I arrived to find 3 English-speaking presenters and no audience. Then a few Scandinavians arrived. But they told us they'd decided to run the session in Portuguese for a group of 20- who weren't there. We waited 15 minutes. We waited half an hour. We left in despair.
Last stop of the day- our own group's presentation. The South Asian People's Initiative is utterly brilliant. They are a group of about 5000 (including 250 Jesuits), from many organisations, faiths and regions, but all working to raise the voice of indigenous people- forest tribals, dalits, adivasis from the cities and other displaced people. They spoke in Tamil, Hindi or English. We heard about displacement and multinational activity, joblessness and migration, protests and government lobbying. Many of the group are beautiful or striking, so it's a visual as well as an aural feast.

Halfway through, there were two presentations by Brazilian Amerindians. Both sides were struck by how common their struggles were. We finished the presentation by discussing what international support could be given to these two indigenous groups to work more together over the coming years. It's very likely to be successful- both the US and the European Jesuit NGOs are keen to fund exchanges, and the Amazonian leaders want to go to India to see the critical education and advocacy work.

We sang, several times. We danced circle dances. The Amerindians painted Dalit faces with Urukong, a local pod thingy, bright red ink which is now adorning my beige clothing.

At the end, Rani spoke. She is a women's leader in her (adivasi) area, and she lobbies the government. To us, that would mean sitting in outer offices waiting for plump politicians in thin blue shirts to give us our turn. To her, it means sitting in the dust on the street outside various offices, in the full heat of the day, chanting, expecting police brutality, and then coming back the next day, with women from the villages, women from the towns, and sitting, marching, chanting, sitting again.
Rani Sivan

Rani told us her experience in about one minute flat. "We lived and worked on a coffee plantation. One day the plantation owner came to tell us it had been sold for eco-tourism. We asked for a week to find somewhere else to live and work. They refused. As we were preparing to leave, they came and burned down our houses. Now we cannot find work. We have no land. My ancestors lived in the forest for generations. That is who we are. Now we have no forest."

That was all. She smiled, rattled through this, very matter-of-fact, smiled again and sat down. I wept then, and I am welling up now recalling it. Somehow it's different. Rani is my friend: we have sat together at meals, done group discussions, hugged and laughed. To hear this after the week we have all spent together, makes me realise that I don't know how to care about such histories. The histories of strangers do not get through the last layer of the bubble I live in. I thought I empathised more than I did.

The World Social Forum is a mess. There are too many people, sessions are cancelled or moved, no-one can find anything, Belem is full to bursting so even if something does run on time there is no-one there to hear it... and yet. Perhaps issues are not what it is for. The members of our group from the global South are having a wonderful time. It strengthens them to hear other histories, other struggles, to feel that they are in it together. I say "they", because we are not so important in the process.

I was thinking about solidarity on the march. Now I'm thinking about it again. Perhaps it is feeling the impact of oppressions that cannot hurt you- caring deeply about oppressions that have an impact only on people poorer than you. Michael Taylor says solidarity isn't about empathising with those on the other side, but about moving over to that side in a thoroughgoing way. Our passports are our get-out-of-jail-free card, our ticket to potential luxury. Our education is too.

I'm ranting again! Sorry. I shall leave it there. At the end, B and I, Jim the US Jesuit (great rendition of "I could have danced all night", but that's another story) and three of the SAPI guys went to the refreshment tent and hung out for an hour, eating ice lollies and chatting. I seem to have had a World Social Forum of mayhem, Marilyn Monroe, marching, muttering and missed sessions, but to sit with new friends and a full heart, sweating gently, talking of Indian states' particular foibles, Afghan daily life and Chinese airline horror stories, eating acai ice cream and shrieking with laughter, is an experience not to be missed. A benison, one of the Indians said- damn right! xxx

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs

Or, more to the point, you can't have a march in the Amazon without torrential rain.

The World Social Forum proper started yesterday, with a march of about 50,000 people I think, though it's hard to tell. When it rains so hard that you are drenched in seconds, you look down. Your umbrella shrinks your world. (So does who you share it with!). Without the rain, would I have noticed how many people marched in bare feet? Would I have realised that all the drums in the drum band were made of rubbish?- empty gas bottles, broken metal bins, leaky plastic water drums. Would I have stayed so close to the friends I have made if I wasn't afraid of losing them? Would that Amerindian chief have smiled so warmly if my camera wasn't waterproof and therefore rare?! Would those fifty people have got so close, marching together under a roof of 'Stop Nuclear War' banner? I don't know- maybe. I hope so.

I lost B within 5 minutes and didn't see him again until the end, 6km later. (Surprise surprise!). I marched with the South Asian People's Initiative. These are a part of our Ignatian pre-forum group, 29 Indians, mainly tribal people (Dalit and Adivasi). They are unobtrusively astounding, which I suspect is a rare gift. Some speak only Tamil, or only Hindi. They were in their element, marching. Pradeep had a long drum, which is played with a beater in one hand doing one rhythm, and a brush in the other doing a much faster rhythm. He played without stopping for 45 minutes on the bus and then 5 hours on the march. People came to us and danced. The leather cord was digging into his neck. The SAPI group have been marching for 27 years. I was exhausted after 5 hours.
Pradeep rousing the rabble on the bus

Frei Betto told us the day before that we need different eyes. We need awareness of our internal ecology. At home I recycle, but how much attention do I pay to the waste in my heart? How sustainable are my relationships? Am I better at washing and recycling glass than I am at tending living things? Ouch!

Just a few impressions. Hundreds of Amazonian indians- the dignified and the sulky, chanting Macuxi or drinking coke with white girlfriends, painted, tattoed, feathers in traditional headdresses or funky jewellery. The barefoot marchers tired by the end, but OBVIOUSLY still dancing. Rivers of water running down the street, water pouring off the edge of banners on to unwary passers-by, waterlogged shoes, water pouring out the bottom of the broken drums, water running off tattoos on indigenous shoulders oblivious to the rain.

I was in some pain by the end. I haven't walked that far since my DVTs in 2006. Is that real solidarity? I'm not sure. It felt like it. Pointless pain that doesn't achieve anything tangible. Wasted pain, which so many people in the march understand more deeply than I ever will. Walking together with friends made over the previous four days, not to get sponsorship, not to collect water, not to deliver a petition, but simply to walk together.

The pain is gone today. We're staying in, having a restful day. We handwashed clothes this morning, and now I'm typing this, thinking of friends in distant places. Then we'll relax and have lunch and perhaps go downtown (no sessions at the WSF in anything other than Portuguese today!). Solidarity yesterday, recovery today. Hmmmm! Luxury! Still, I am who I am, frail in my privilege. My poverties are in stamina, in persistence and in understanding. I am so happy to find that these people I've met here, who are rich in those things, value my different gifts too. I think that's very generous of them. xxx

Nirmala on the march

A Brazilian Amerindian marcher

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Belem do Para

Our Guyanese colleague Anil

The frogs are whooping glissandoes and the cicadas are bizzing. Just time for a quick wibble before dinner.

It was amazing to hear stories of fights for justice in Brazil today from the horses' mouths. One female politician who has just left the cabinet ("The failings of development are not inadequacy of technique but inadequacy of ethics") and one 86-year old liberation theologian who spoke slow drawly Portuguese and enjoyed elaborating on how philosophy is rubbish, theology is all wrong and the Pope's intellectual life is in the 12th century! It's interesting sitting in a hall of 200 people from about 20 countries, with dalits whose most mainstream language is Hindi, Amerindians from Brazil and Guyana who share the same tribal language but split up in the Portuguese and English sessions, a lost-looking Japanese Jesuit who jumped like I'd stung him when I said hello, and a majority of Brazilians who dance at every opportunity, take siestas between sessions and generally seem to be very good at Life.

The introductory session last night was like a parable of cultural difference. Each group gave a short presentation. The Europeans all backed away from the microphone. The African presentation seemed to be mainly a group hug. South Brazilians were quite reserved. Latin America was horribly disparate (4 of us from English speaking Guyana, the rest Spanish speakers, NOOOOOOOOOO consensus and a Columbian takeover!) North Brazil was a massive boogie, FOUR songs in different languages, I'm sure practically all of us wished we were Brazilian... the exuberance carried on into the singing and dancing later. B took some good photos, and was definitely happier behind the camera than in front of it! He's as popular as ever, but keeping his profile low (metaphorically only, of course... wait till we get to Aishalton! Standing OUT!)

The bus has just got back with all the others, so I'm off to dinner and a little bit of sociability before collapsing into bed. The heat isn't extreme, but it has a wilting effect. I feel rather like an untended house plant (one of the pallid kind).

Saturday, 24 January 2009


I never, ever, ever thought I'd write a blog. Only read it if you want tedious levels of information! Once we settle in I promise not to effuse at such length about every itty bitty detail...

Virgin did not let us down. We made it to Georgetown (via Barbados, Trinidad, the World, the Universe etc) 20 minutes early, 22:45 on 22nd January. Funny, I arrived feeling much more worn out than the November trip, when I had that long morning on the beach in Barbados, courtesy of Virgin-letting-us-down... Weird.

That was a 22-hour day. Oh the joy the bliss of flying straight on to Brazil on 23rd! Ah well, you can sleep when you're dead, as they say.

The welcome in Brickdam was really lovely. Everyone seemed so happy to see me back, and to meet B. It was very heartening. I was so wiped I could hardly stand up- can't remember when I was last that tired. Partly the long day, but partly the build-up from the previous weeks. Haven't slept very well with trying to get everything done (and failing, naturally!).

A real bonus was to find Father Amar there, our soon-to-be-colleague from Aishalton, who had come up to renew his work permit. Not only is he a delight, but he'd driven the whole way in his jeep, and is therefore carrying most of our luggage back! Bliss!!!! B now wants to buy his body weight in extra things to carry. Hmmmmmmmmmmmm.

At lunchtime we met up with Paul Martin (British Jesuit, has lived in the Guyanese interior for I think 12 years, kind of a little rugged teddy bear who you could imagine being a great person to have around in a crisis) and Anil Roberts (Amerindian from Annai, worked in Iwokrama rainforest project, now studying fine art in Georgetown, classic handsome long-haired quiet Amerindian-we-all-thought-was-a-bit-too-goodtobetrue-in-Westerns) to fly to Belem do Para for the World Social Forum. AMAZING airline! It's called Meta, they handwrite the baggage labels, the same two staff do everything, and Ihonestly wouldn't have been surprised if the check-in desk guy had turned out to be the pilot. 33-seater, built for people of roughly 5ft 3. B had an interesting journey! It took about 5 hours, with a stop-off in Paramaribo (capital of Suriname) but we couldn't get off. I had packed away all my warm clothes, stooooopid, forgetting how cold it is on flights. Frrrrrreeeeezing.

The welcome in Brazil was good too. My eyes felt like they'd been glued down with velcro though. We're staying in the Belem Casa del Retiro (retreat house), which is a lovely open building with small comfortable beds, only cold water, lots of tiles and concrete and no discernible cockroaches. No mosquito nets either, so B and I reek of Mosiguard. I glue to everything. Hurray for Nosquito clothing. Mind you, it doesn't feel buggy, but B is quite bitten.

We have a little hiatus this morning. B is off walking the town at 900 miles an hour with Paul and Anil. I am here in front of the fan, looking out at the beautiful garden (crunchy underfoot- even after the rain it's not exactly turf) with its palms and tropical flowers, and the prison wall with some desultory barbed wire on top. Thinking of friends in faraway places, trying to imagine what it feels like to sit in grey cold rain (or blazing sunshine) and imagine what it's like here in Belem do Para from my inadequate descriptions. Funny old business, words. We'll get the camera out later today. x