Ríos de Encontro – Rivers of Meeting
We bicycled for a good while, discussing environmental waste and how it could be reused. We came up with the idea of building a raft with recycled materials and using it to float down a tributary of the Amazon. It was a lot of work, but we built it. Then we just needed to set sail. We got going, allowing the Araguaia River´s great flow to carry us for about 1,300 kilometers. Finally we reached a point where the river turned into one of the biggest artificial lakes on the planet, created by the fourth largest hydroelectric plant in the world, Tucurú. We wanted to continue our journey since the city of Maraba was our final stop, but we didn’t know what to do with the raft. We could either sell it, or we could donate it to an organization where it would continue to be used to help the environment. We found an organization that fit this description a few days after arriving in the city. We learned where there was a couple who worked with youth from the poorest areas of the city and went to meet them.
In the center of the main city district lies Cabelo Seco, an African community that suffers from the third highest rate of violence in the entire country. Here we met Dan, who was born in Wales, and Manu, a Brazilian. They received us with a warm welcome into their lovely home, which was also the base of operations for the Rivers of Meeting project, also known as Casinha da Cultura. As we explained who we were and what had brought us there, they felt a connection with us and brought up the possibility of working together—something that filled us with excitement. They followed by telling us a little more about their project Rivers of Meeting. For the past seven years, they had been working to renew the cultural and artistic heritage of the community that had been suppressed throughout more than a century of exploitation. Its aim is to integrate the four generations within the community, including health, educational and security professionals, along with government officials.
These two social activists with international experience launched the project thanks to a state grant within the Acceleration of Growth Program (PAC). It was developed across years of winning various awards which acknowledged their work done to recover African culture and aiding youth that were threatened by the risk of marginality. With the help of this program, they became community leaders through musical and cultural training. Seeing the look of amazement on our faces and sensing that we weren’t completely understanding how the project worked, they invited us to attend one of their meetings the following week where we could speak about our own adventure and where those very young people could have the chance to explain what they did and present how their organization worked.
We prepared a small presentation with photographs to accompany our talk and headed for the Casinha da Cultura, somewhat nervous but also excited for the opportunity. When we got there, they were all ready, seated in a semi-circle, with orange juice on the table and the screen set up. They gave us their full attention, asking questions and creating a pleasant atmosphere in which we felt very comfortable. Then came the turn of the youth, where they each briefly explained their role, allowing us to understand what it all entailed. The focus of the project is the artistic and cultural mini projects managed by the young people of the community. The youth are supported by the two activists and the Casinha da Cultura, and they operate on many fronts. These include the musical group Latinhas do Quintal, where the young musicians discuss the reality of their lives and homes and their Amazonian and African roots mixed with the traditional sounds of the region. Another mini project includes the video producing of Rabetas videos, in which they edit and document everything that makes the project possible. There is also the Folhas da vida, which is a family library where every week, two youths go from house to house through the community offering books and magazines that are collected the following week. In this way they promote both reading and the culture of its members. The dance company Afromundi has participated in international festivals, exhibiting Afro-descendent culture. There is even a mini-cultural journalism project Nem um pingo, in which they write about realities in the community or events of interest. The Coruja cinema promotes free movies that are usually outdoors, giving the community a chance to attend a film on the big screen. The Hortas Comunitarias promotes the creation of gardens in unused areas of the community. There are now more groups than ever before, and the doors are always open for mini-projects if the youth come up with new ideas. One of Dan’s main ambitions for a project was to put solar panels in place to highlight the alternatives to hydroelectric energy that can cause much damage to the region.
We were moved as we listened to the small presentations of every mini-project, seeing how these young people spoke proudly of what they had achieved. We realized the importance this had on their community. Many of them had a complicated family situation, had seen a friend die or were exposed to the dangers of the reality in which they lived in. They saw Rivers of Meeting as a place to start their own projects, becoming empowered by creating their own future. Once they had explained to us their initiatives, we had the privilege of taking part in one of their gatherings, in which they had a screen with a large sheet showing the timetable. Manu stood in the middle of the room to go through the events of the day. They decided that the calendar for the month would include film, the mobile library and a popular cycling route through the city, which they organized to promote Mother Nature. In a fairly coordinated manner, all the young people between 8 and 15 brought forth an idea or proposal. Dan and Manu controlled the situation when it got a bit out of hand, in a calm and not at all authoritarian manner. In little less than an hour, they had decided how the day would run, along with when and how they would perform each of these actions. It was quite nice to see these kids from poor families and harsh realities organizing their meeting in a way not even politicians achieve. They listened to the suggestions of the others while being constructive and respecting their turn. They worked together democratically to reach a mutual agreement. In this way, they were able to take this non-violent and supportive way of communication home, and even use it throughout the entire community. Before leaving, we enjoyed some music, and I played a few songs that I knew. The members of Latinhas do Quintal performed some songs for us, accompanied masterfully by their teacher, a great singer of the Zequinha area. This all happened while we ate some cookies. We stayed briefly, once the gathering finished, talking alone with Dan and Manú. They thanked us for coming and spoke of the difficulties they go through.
They are the only cultural project that does not accept money from the large corporations that exploit the natural resources of the region. Their hands are clean to speak loud and clear, and are able to inform the people about the environmental and social impacts of major works on the region. One of these works would be the construction of another hydroelectric plant or waterway, which would alter the natural course of the river. This river is vital not only for the people who live near it but also the species that inhabit this mighty artery of the land. Those who have the most interest in this waterway are the soybean export companies and the multinational mining company Valle, who have for a long time extracted the riches found in the subsoil. Both are interested in being able to bring their products directly from the river to the sea, without dealing with the locals or the environmental disasters that go with it. They so often have the government’s blessing and only focus on the major economic benefits. Because they speak out against this, the couple’s activism causes them to receive threats from both private companies and certain politicians who do not want the people to know what is happening, and could thus get away with following their own interests. This follows a recurring theme in the world, and it is only because of those who report what is really going on, informing us of what those in power do not want you to know, that we can have a true idea of what is truly happening.
We agreed to do a series of lectures in schools, speaking about the project and performing our circus act for them. Asking us to take part in ‘The Nature Cycle” that would take place the following week, we replied with a resounding yes to this magnificent opportunity. It is very heartening to see people working so passionately to help others, as this project is an inspiration and shows that through human contact, art, education and support, the most complicated realities truly can be changed. This project is giving hope and opportunities to those who are born in a place where it is difficult to move forward. They are encouraged to create and develop their own projects and to believe in themselves. It is a model that can be replicated in favelas and shantytowns around the world. In this way, we could reach the most vulnerable layers of the unequal system in which we live, where second-class citizens are seen as expendable, with their own interests being worthless.
We spoke in front of more than 500 students on the day of the presentation, where we had the chance to exhibit the state of the environmental situation in the area. We also asked them what they thought of it. It was a great experience and we saw the implications that Rivers of Meeting had on the school and how they value the work that is done for them. The cycling route through the city will remain forever engraved in our memories, remembering the faces of happiness on the more than 100 young people that participated. Many of them were not used to being outside their neighborhoods, and now were racing through the city streets to the rhythm of Latinhas do Quintal’s music playing over the bike speaker, and feeling a bit of freedom. We cycled towards a school on the other side of the city that was also involved in the project. We were met by the local press and many school children, with whom we shared musical and artistic performances. We also spoke about the importance of looking after nature and the dangers of many things that were currently happening in the city. One of these was the eviction of everyone from the Cabelo Seco neighborhood in order to build a new, upper-class neighborhood. These plans would take advantage of the strategic location along the river. On the way back, Dan told me how difficult it would be to take action against something like this, as they would have to mobilize the police and get permission from city hall amongst many other authorities. However, according to him, the effort will be rewarded by the joy it brings to all those involved.
Rivers of Meeting, so called because of its location between the Tocantins and Itacaiúnas rivers, touched our hearts so much that we decided to donate our boat and help future projects develop. After discussing with the youth and their mothers, the couple accepted our gift. It was there that our magnificent journey on the river ended.
Writed by Joel Jansa
This article speaks about our ongoing project. If you would like to know more, you can find all the information at www.bobmolaemarabamba.wordpress.com
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