Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Saturday, December 18, 2010


Arlindo comes to the rescue

Walking around the house barefoot is no longer an option. Tonight changed everything.

After six days of warm and very wet weather, a spider - an extremely venomous one, I am unreassuringly told - confronts me in the darkened corridor outside Phase 2.

It's time to call the Spiderman.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Still standing

W swimming with Tango

Only W remains. A and J were returned to their homes last week and L - sadly - decided to jump the wall. More on that later.

For now, my attentions are focused on this one adolescent who is the only one left. And not for the first time. It happened when we reintegrated four children last year, and now it happens once again. It's like some twisted game of musical chairs and he is always the last one standing.

No longer a child. As an adolescent, he doesn't confide much, but one doesn't have to be trained in child psychology to guess what he must be feeling right now. All I can do is give him attention and love so that he knows that there is someone who wants him (even though none - not one member - of his family want to know).

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Shooting kids

"Photography is the product of complete alienation"
- Marcel Proust

Who knew?

Glad to see that (1) Brazil is behind the US and (2) Britain is still good (or, the least bad) at something.

The Economist
, 9 December 2010


Family life was a story of parental indifference, of a young man's estrangement and of his rebellion against the artificial values and bigotry he witnessed at home. "Being an orphan," Albee quietly intones, "I imagined perhaps that I was an identical twin because there was something missing - not having parents or anything of that sort. I would have lots of conversations with me pretending that I was my identical brother."

Financial Times, September 4, 2010

I dreamed a dream

The "sweet soul"

brothers and sisters
São Paulo, 5 December, 2010

"Other muscles can simulate a smile, but only the peculiar tango of the zygomatic major and the orbicularis oculi produces a genuine expression of positive emotion. Psychologists call this the “Duchenne smile,” and most consider it the sole indica­tor of true enjoyment. The name is a nod to French anatomist Guillaume Duchenne, who studied emotional expression by stimulating various facial muscles with electrical currents. (The technique hurt so much, it’s been said, that Duchenne performed some of his tests on the severed heads of executed criminals.)

In his 1862 book Mecanisme de la Physionomie Humaine, Duchenne wrote that the zygomatic major can be willed into action, but that only the “sweet emotions of the soul” force the orbicularis oculi to contract. “Its inertia, in smiling,” Duchenne wrote, “unmasks a false friend.”

Psychological scientists no longer study beheaded rogues — just graduate students, mainly — but they have advanced our understanding of smiles since Duchenne’s discoveries. We now know that genuine smiles may indeed reflect a “sweet soul.” The intensity of a true grin can predict marital happiness, personal well-being, and even longevity. We know that some smiles — Duchenne’s false friends — do not reflect enjoyment at all, but rather a wide range of emotions, including embarrassment, deceit, and grief. We know that variables (age, gender, culture, and social setting, among them) influence the frequency and character of a grin, and what purpose smiles play in the broader scheme of existence. In short, scientists have learned that one of humanity’s simplest expressions is beautifully complex."

Source: APC

I didn't know it bothered you

I appear to be writing more apologies than newsworthy blog entries at the moment. So much. So very much to write about concerning these last few turbulent weeks.

Like Conrad, "the sight of a pen and an inkwell fills me with anger and horror". In this case, it's my trusty SPD.

Sometimes I become paralysed by a fear that I will not be able to express what I feel with sufficient justice (or, perhaps, dignity). Like when I buy a new album from an artist I really like and don't play it for ages just in case it turns out to be rubbish.

When I miss home

When I miss home, I listen for the comforting clackety-clack of the train.
When I miss home, I log-on to Radio 4.

When I miss home, I re-read old letters from mum.

When I miss home, I pray.

Not a good wash day

hot, humid mornings + wet, angry afternoons = summer

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Walk the line

It comes as no surprise (to me, at least) that humans can’t walk in a straight line unless we have an external guide. We just end up walking in circles.

It turns out, no one is really sure why this happens but experiments on walkers, drivers and swimmers have all found the tendency to circle back on ourselves despite us thinking that we’re maintaining a steady course ahead.

Which makes one inevitably think: who is my guide?

Source: NPR


I have been woken in the night recently by things crawling into my nose. Upon inspection, I realise I have a nest of spiders in the apex of my mosquito net.

On the inside.

Monday, November 22, 2010


W working hard during his suspension from school

Friday, November 19, 2010

I’m not the guy you kill. I’m the guy you buy.

I shook hands with a man who's killed over thirty people today. He appeared normal, with all the qualities of a loner: sitting alone by the lake and not keeping eye contact for more than a few seconds. Otherwise, quite personable.

My friend Fernando has known him since they were both kids, growing up in a favela close by. I sat, wide-eyed as he explained that the man is a paid assassin for a drug gang and goes to work when the small time dealers refuse to pay. One time he watched as the guy - upon running out of bullets - finished his target off by smashing his head in with a rock.

After a brief introduction we withdrew and sat at a distance, staring out across the water.

"He wants to get out" Fernando tells me. "He lives a paranoid existence."
"I thought this stuff only existed in movies" I say, lost for meaningful words.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Too tired to be useful

" sluggish. That may not seem the end of the world, but it reflects realities such as the two-hour bus journey into work endured by people living on the periphery of São Paulo...during which they often risk assault before arriving too tired to be useful."

The Economist
, 14 November, 2009

Good Grief

So, the computer died and I've been spending the best part of the week trying to rescue photos and other important stuff from the frizzled hard drive. Hence the lack of postings of late. Apologies.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Have you seen the rabbit?

Scars on the Brain

"Words do hurt. Ridicule, distain, humiliation, taunting, all cause injury, and when it is delivered in childhood from a child’s peers, verbal abuse causes more than emotional trauma. It inflicts lasting physical effects on brain structure.

The remarkable thing about the human brain is that it develops after birth. Unlike most animals whose brains are cast at birth, the human brain is so underdeveloped at birth that we cannot even walk for months. Self awareness does not develop for years. Personality, cognitive abilities, and skills, take decades to develop, and these attributes develop differently in every person. This is because development and wiring of the human brain are guided by our experiences during childhood and adolescence.

When that environment is hostile or socially unhealthy, development of the brain is affected, and often it is impaired. Early childhood sexual abuse, physical abuse, or even witnessing domestic violence, have been shown to cause abnormal physical changes in the brain of children, with lasting effects that predisposes the child to developing psychological disorders. This type of brain scarring is well established now by human brain imaging studies, but prior to the recent study by Martin Teicher and colleagues at Harvard Medical School, taunting and other verbal abuse experienced by middle school children from their peers was not thought to leave a structural imprint on the developing brain. But it does, according to their new study published on-line in advance of print in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Young adults, ages 18-25, with no history of exposure to domestic violence, sexual abuse, or parental physical abuse, were asked to rate their childhood exposure to parental and peer verbal abuse when they were children, and then they were given a brain scan.

The results revealed that those individuals who reported experiencing verbal abuse from their peers during middle school years had underdeveloped connections between the left and right sides of their brain through the massive bundle of connecting fibers called the corpus callosum. Psychological tests given to all subjects in the study showed that this same group of individuals had higher levels of anxiety, depression, anger, hostility, dissociation, and drug abuse than others in the study."

Psychology Today, October 30, 2010

Signs of Adolescence #2

A rare treat (a visit to the cinema):

L: Are you going to wear those clothes?
Me: Er, yes.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Sweet Dreams

"Did you have bad dreams again?" (Mother)

"Only one. It's always the same, ever since I can remember. Do you think that's normal? Don't most people have different dreams?" (Alice)

"I don't know." (Mother)

Alice in Wonderland (original script, 2010)

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Signs of Adolescence #1

refusal to share the soap

Saturday, October 23, 2010

More man than boy

I went to visit distant relatives (not geographically speaking) of W recently. A tiny house in one of the larger favelas on the northern extremes of the city, called Brasilândia. The tight-fitting ramshackle houses - squeezed into every conceivable space on the steep slopes which mark the city limits - mirrored the interior of his aunt's house: a small, dark living room and a single bedroom where seven of his family live.

W with family

They seemed a caring family who clearly love W, but had (and have) no means to care for him. I couldn't tell whether it was adolescent timidity which made him stare at the television the entire duration of the visit (I had to keep prodding him to engage a little), or a simple resignation that the likelihood of him ever experiencing something resembling a normal family life is slowly ebbing away as he reaches adolescence.

the road home - cityscape in the wing mirror

Fixing bikes (at night)

my valuable contribution is around the 25' mark

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Sticks and Stones

"Of all the things a child sees and touches, the most dangerous toy is about the least dangerous thing. There is hardly a single domestic utensil that is not much more dangerous than a little bow and arrows. He can burn himself in the fire, he can boil himself in the bath, he can cut his throat with the carving knife, he can scald himself with the kettle, he can choke himself with anything small enough, he can break his neck off anything high enough. He plays all day in a house fitted up with engines of torture like the Spanish Inquisition. And while he thus dances in the shadow of death, he is to be saved from all the perils of possessing a piece of string, tied to a bent bow or twig."


Monday, October 18, 2010

Elections '10 (Part 2)

For those interested (and, to be honest, I wasn't at first), the BBC has got some good coverage of the elections over on their web site.

(clicking the pic links to the BBC microsite)

Apologies for the lacuna

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Monday, October 11, 2010

Madonna and Child

"Finally, she came. A fleet of new 4x4s swept on to the bare earth and out she stepped with Lourdes, her eldest. They were ushered up the dais stairs and sat down. After some massed dances of welcome, the speeches began. The Minister for Education gushed that ‘in future every girl born in Malawi will be Madonna’s child’. This and other such statements made us cynical local hacks look at each other and blink. Someone near the microphone made a valiant effort to render the stream of platitudes into Chewa, but it took too long and was soon abandoned.

The sweating, patient crowd looked on uncomprehendingly from a distance. On the far side the schoolchildren looked uncomfortably hot and stupefied with boredom. I wished with all my heart that someone, Madonna preferably, would stand up and crack a good and easily translatable joke. Or that she would totter across the bare African earth on her high heels and offer her hands. Or better still grab the mike and sing Like a Virgin."

The Spectator, 2 October, 2010

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Violence: update

I can gladly report that there has been a marked decrease in aggression at the house in recent weeks.

I have been replaced!

Sorry to keep you waiting

Long lines outside the hospital, the post office, the lottery booth.
Why are the poor treated as if their time is totally worthless?

Very different interventions

"In rural areas poverty leads to a lack of the basics: food, water, primary schools, simple health care. Conditional cash-transfer schemes are good at providing those because, however small the stipend, it gives children an incentive to go to school and encourages markets to develop in the goods and services that were lacking before. In cities, by contrast, the problems of poverty are compounded by violence, drugs, family breakdown and child labour. These require different interventions: in law and order, in programmes to stop domestic abuse, and so on. And they require more than just the state to step in: commerce and churches are just as important. Such problems will become greater in future because the largest concentrations of poverty are no longer in the backward rural areas but in the anarchic megalopolises of developing countries."

The Economist
, July 31st 2010.

It is nothing new to articulate the rather obvious differences between urban and rural poverty, but I extract the lengthy quote above (from the Leaders page, no less) because of the nod it gives not only to the growing importance of the private sector in resolving “the problems of poverty”, but also for the reference it makes to the church. It remains one of the reasons I am called to this creaking, messy, urban context: the peculiar problems that arise when communities collide in their search for a better life.

I recently flew over that great planned city (and capital) Brasilia, on my return to São Paulo. It its 50th year, I see nothing to celebrate in its stagnant rows of uniform streets, fanning out symmetrically from starchitect-designed municipal monoliths. It was just before 5am and in the night (darkest just before the dawn) the street lights only went to outline the insipidness of it all. I found myself pining for the plane's descent into the beautiful chaos of the city that I now call my second home.

Gorbels, Glasgow (1948)

Most third world cities separate neatly into poor and rich areas like a sunny-side-up egg, with slums spreading out from the rim. São Paulo is more like a scrambled egg. This adds to the complications of a ministry to children in situations of risk (in recent weeks the street kids have become increasingly peripatetic), but in other ways the city is no different to any other megacity. Indeed, Conan Doyle described London as “that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the empire are irresistibly drained.”

It is a truism that “[a]ll have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one" (Romans 3:12), but it is nonetheless intriguing to observe at first hand urban idiosyncrasies that are somehow beyond the traditional remit of state and private sector. What might be described as outsourcing a problem to God.

Something perhaps we should all do.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Family values

"The difference between mistreating a child and a dog in public [is] that passers-by are much more willing to intervene on the dog's behalf."

The Guardian, 14th August 2010

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Home is where you left

There is a painting by one of the boys from 2004 that hangs on the wall in the games room. When I'm not being chased (or chasing someone else) I can't help but stop and stare at it. Occasionally it gets knocked off, moved some place else or simply frisbee'd into the garden, but it always somehow manages - against all odds - to make its way back onto the wall.

It is a child's simple, two-dimensional view of the world. A lone figure - central and isolated - suspended just above the horizon of a sea-like plateau of grass. I guess a psychiatrist might have a field day analysing the thoughts which may (or may not) have gone into its creation, and like all good art, it produces more questions than it does answers. Adult or child? Walking or running? To or from? House or home?

Friday, October 1, 2010

A recipe

  • Large plastic ground sheet
  • Detergent
  • Water
  • 3 street kids
  1. Spread sheet on ground
  2. Add a generous sprinkling of detergent + a dousing of water
  3. Add each street kid in turn, until each is smiling (est. 5 seconds)
  4. Rinse off in swimming pool (oops!)

Back to being Dad

"She told me I was sixteen which of course I knew and that I was now a Man which I didn't care if I knew or not cos men were either bastard bad people like NotDad or Arthur or not happy people like Drunkle and I didn't really want to be like none of them even if I did love my Drunkle I didn't want to be like him in his not-happy ways."

Niall Griffiths, Runt

A cut above

I wrote a little while ago regarding J. Well, he went to the family court yesterday and it seems the judge agrees with regard to his progress - no - transformation.

He will start family visits this weekend with an aim to being reintegrated with his family (such that it is) this November. Seems so...soon, but that is the aim of the rescue house: to reintegrate the boys back into their own family (or, if they have no family, an adoptive one) within nine months of their admission.

Can someone be reborn before their death? We believe so.

the barber only rings once (thank goodness)

Friday, September 24, 2010

The doctor will see you now

Sitting in the waiting room with L. I am reminded of mother at work. Hospital, the most barren of places. And I am not even ill. I have fond memories of mother there (those few times that I visited) when she was in uniform, her official guise. I know what she'd say in this context. I know how she'd act with the upmost compassion. More than at any time before, I am struggling to empathize. Struggling to find a unifying sentiment, a shared emotion, between me and those in my care. I cannot imagine - even for a moment - what it must be like to have no memories of mother. Or just brief, painful ones.

top row, third from the left

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Neighbourhood Watch

delusions of grandeur?

Things are what they used to be

Red eyes on the bumpy ride home.
Mothers who shouldn't have to be here, now.
A hopeless poverty that keeps them excluded from the mainstream.
The end of the night never comes too quickly for me.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The kiting season is over

"Lack of experience is costly. Our greatest ignorance is not of what we have yet to learn, but of how little we really know. Harry Golden remarked, 'The arrogance of the young is a direct result of not having known enough consequences. The turkey that every day greedily approaches the farmer who tosses him grain is not wrong. It's just that no one has ever told him about Thanksgiving.' You can't avoid making mistakes but you can limit them, grow through them, and not keep making the same ones."

The Word For Today
, 29 April 2010


"Por l'amor de deus!" my hairdresser exclaimed after giving a long sigh, before turning on her heels and putting the TV out of its misery. She was halfway through my customary #1 (back 'n' sides) and #1.5 (top) and the sigh - and silencing - was due to the silly season here in Brazil. Otherwise known as Election Season.

The television had been streaming back-to-back extremely tedious party political broadcasts all in the form of Chavez-style addresses to the nation (ie a middle-aged white man intoning a string of clearly unattainable promises).

we pledge to...clear up this rubbish? Fat chance.

The most tedious thing about democracies is the participation, or at least in some sense the feeling of being obliged to so participate. Here, voting is obligatory and this means that - despite the citywide ban on advertising hoardings a few years back - all are exposed to the following assault on the eyeballs:

walking along the road this morning

last man grinning standing

vote for 'im or you gets the next one

Aw, rats (continued)

Woken unexpectedly at 4.15am by a scurrying in the rafters. Houston, we have a rat problem. I had spotted a tiny poo on the sofa in the meeting room on Thursday. They (the poos, not the rats) must be mounting up by now in the roof and spilling through the gaps in the ceiling. Goodness knows how many (rats, not poos) there must be up there now. And, if one were to be frank (but still Luke), I'd say they were pretty fat from the sound of this morning's rude awakening. More like a lumbering than a scurrying, really. Scurrying suggests a certain lightness of foot.

hey, I'm famous! Today's Estado (click to enlarge)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


The urban regeneration of Crackland presses ahead at quite a pace. A "cultural space" is promised, although no luxury apartments just yet, thankyouverymuch. News came today from Folha de São Paulo that the displaced (and crack-addled) masses invaded the demolition site, which has recently been vacated due to various legal wranglings.

The site of men, women and children huddled together in desperation in the middle of the razed and rubble-strewn block looks faintly post-apocalyptic.

"an army of human rags" - Folha

Language Learning

"I marshalled the words and opened my mouth, thinking I would hear them. But all I heard was a kind of rattle, unintelligible even to me who knew what was intended."

Samuel Beckett, The Calmative (1946)

Monday, September 13, 2010

Look who came home today

W unexpectedly - but delightfully - returned to the house today. Regular readers will remember his story and recent history with the house. He has been on the street ever since he ran away, but recently became very ill and was admitted to hospital for treatment. From there he was transferred (as is the protocol) to a children's home run by São Paulo state. We know the home well - they call us most weeks to see if we have room for any of their boys.

W is what you might call a complicated child, but he remains a joy to be with.

I don't know how long he'll be with us, but that just makes every moment more special.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

It's true

The sound of barking dogs pierces the night. During the day it provides a near-constant backdrop. A suburban tinnitus. Stereophonic barking from behind protective walls. Snarling noises and a nose protruded between bars.
Dogs are meant to be more than this.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Promotions & Demotions

The epic snoring coming down the corridor from Phase 3 is unmistakably J. He has been elevated from Phase 2 after being at the house for over four months.

dirty feet on clean sheets, but who cares?

I should at this point (after having somewhat negligently omitted to previously) explain that the rescue house has four distinct phases which are central to its function. The phases represent more than mere sleeping accommodation. They are designed (and work, for the most part) as targets for the boys to aspire to and around which revolve various privileges.

The boys, when they come off the street, initially sleep in Phase 1 which is a rather austere space occupied by a quadruple bunk bed and toilet/shower area with bare concrete walls and hooks for clothes. The rawness of the accommodation is designed to make the boys feel more “at home” and forms a crucial first step in helping the kids acclimatise to the new environment. There is a mandatory two week stay in Phase 1. Although boys sometimes yo-yo between Phases 1 and 2 due to disciplinary issues (G was the last to make a habit of this, which became almost comic in its predictability), it is unusual for them to remain in Phase 1.

Phase 2 (shown below) forms a somewhat mediocre middle ground for most of the boys. A mandatory two month period can result in promotion to Phase 3 (as for J), demotion, or stagnation.

Phase 2 - somewhat crowded of late

Phase 3 is a more private space on the upper level of the house, with fitted wardrobes and ancillary perks such as the ability to earn money for performing jobs around the house. W was, sadly, demoted last month for various adolescent pranks which went a bit too far.

Phase 4, the highest phase, has its own bathroom and additional privileges (such as staying up late) and is for those who display leadership and responsibility over and above a child in Phase 3. Suffice to say, I've never seen any of the boys yet reach P4...but here's hoping!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

It took a child to notice

I had been meeting various people most of the afternoon after lunch. Some meetings brief, others longer. No one had said anything until much later when J told me I still had food around my mouth.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Back To The Old House

"All roads lead home," says Julia
"All roads lead away from home," Jackson replied

Kate Atkinson, Started Early, Took My Dog

Friday, September 3, 2010

Club Med

"That the world's fifth-largest country (by population) and eighth largest economy (in real terms) is often perceived by foreigners as a giant Club Med resort is partly thanks to foreign correspondents reporting on Brazil, who often feel they have to start with what readers back home know about the place and go from there."
The Economist
, 21 August 2010

Yes, a Club Med where there's typhoid and rabies and HIV.

Permanent visa in hand, I return to the rescue house next Tuesday night. I am (as the Americans like to say) psyched about resuming my work. Thank you to all (not least my own dear family who have been suffering my presence this last month) for your unabated kindness and continued expressions of support.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


Presenter: Isn't there a risk that people will blame themselves? I mean, if it's all up to them?
Author: Well, it is a self-help book.

The Today Programme, BBC Radio 4

Thursday, August 26, 2010

You can get lost and disappear forever

I was hoping to compile a short city guide for São Paulo, but then I found that someone had already prepared one. Silly me.

click to enlarge