Saturday, May 29, 2010

Wake Up Call

Just woke up to the sound of Tango barking furiously. I unlocked the door, went outside and was confronted by the sight of eight policemen at the gates of the rescue house - all pointing their guns at me.

Bleary-eyed, I put my hands up and walked slowly towards them. Maybe we were being robbed? (pointed guns have such an immediacy about them). Maybe L had made good on his promise over breakfast this week "I'm going to get my drug-dealer friends to kill you".

After a twenty minute discussion with the officers on whether illegal immigration was a crime (just kidding), they explained that a neighbour had called them after seeing the gates left open. Two thoughts came to mind:

(1) Who knew we had such good neighbours?
(2) The police response and show of force was very impressive (and reassuring).

Being on duty at weekends is always eventful.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Hormonal Issues

Taking the boys for (oft-needed) escapes from the house - a bike ride or a trip to the park perhaps - is becoming increasingly difficult without near-constant correction from yours truly. The reason? Not a fight between the boys (although it happens), not a swear word (although there are many), but the near-constant ogling and whistling whenever a girl is within a half-mile radius.

The "challenge" of looking after pre-adolescent boys is obvious. What is more demanding in this particular context is the cultural clash (or should that be full-speed head-on collision?).

Here (as I have previously commented) it is a norm for most women to dress very sparingly. In fact, many girls from a young age are positively encouraged in the poorer communities to attract a man's eye by dressing in what many would consider a non-”childlike” manner. Not to provoke a look and a whistle is considered failure.

When put into the mix - to stare is expected and to be stared at is flattery - what basis do I have for correction? In law, there can be no claim without first establishing there has been damage. Occasionally this is achieved via a subterfuge (eg in certain driving offences such as failure to wear a seat belt), but the exceptions merely serve to underline the rule.

But there is damage. There is loss. Maybe not now. Maybe not even in a few years. But in marriage, in relationship, there will be. Brazil has one of the worst records for marriage fidelity in the world. Is there any wonder?

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Lure of the Street (postscript)

I caught up with W for a second time this week, when we reconvened our regular Tuesday afternoon hockey matches with the kids.

After three weeks of detox at the rescue house, there he was sucking on a bottle of thinner. Feet that I had laboriously scrubbed clean, now filthy again. I am reminded of C.S. Lewis, who wrote that we can often be "like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased."

But was W pleased to be back on the street? When asked where his older brother was - the reason he gave for his return to the street - he replied that his brother had been arrested and was in the children's prison. Pointing to the top of his head, he showed me a think crust of dried blood. "He did this" he said, with a wry grin.

What bitter irony.

The Lure of the Street (Part 2)

I arrived shortly after dusk and soon came across some familiar faces, about to jump the wall of a crumbling derelict building which had been cordoned off from the street (about two blocks from where we play hockey with the kids on Tuesdays). "Come on in, Tio" was the invitation I needed to pass from one world to another.

Scaling the wall, I descended a steep pile of crumbling mortar, broken glass and trash. The kids led me down what must have originally been an internal corridor, but was now open to the elements. A knock, an exchange of call signs and a door was opened into a series of dark and stuffy internal rooms, choked by cigarette smoke and the ubiquitous stench of glue. No sign of W, but more familiar faces – and some new ones too. A candle burned atop an upturned speaker and, after a gesture to sit on one of the many mattresses, some biscuits were opened and from somewhere a pitcher of juice was rustled up. As I politely nibbled, four small faces, barely visible in the candlight, sat and stared at me as if I was a visitor from another planet. Maybe it was the audacity of meeting them on their turf for a change. Maybe it was the drugs.

As I contemplated their welcome and their generosity in sharing what few things they had, noises could be heard from the alleyway outside. One of the boys made for the exit to see what the commotion was about and a confusing scramble of dialogue ensued, the meaning of which I couldn't clearly decipher, except for the word polícia.

The circumstances suddenly dawned on me: I am an illegal immigrant trespassing on private property surrounded by drug paraphernalia and four minors. I mean, what was I thinking? Seeing the expression on the boys' faces go from drug-induced apathy to anxiety, I hastily expressed my gratitude, ran out the door, scrambled up the rubble heap and lept into the street before you could say “Carandiru”.

That is when I saw W. He was with some other boys. He looked at me, looked away, and then continued on his way. That's all I hoped for. I hadn't expected an expression of regret or remorse, or some form of reconciliation. This isn't the movies. This is the street. What I wanted is for him to see that I bothered to follow him back to the street. To let him know that I cared. Or should I say, to reiterate my care for him.

Mission accomplished.

see you soon, W

The English Lessons...

...are bearing fruit!

The Lure of the Street (Part 1)

W ran away.

It has been over a week now, but I haven't had the composure to comment. A heady mix of sadness, frustration, anger and hope, which (in turn) has required a generous serving of grace.

He had begun to speak of his brother frequently in the days leading up to his departure. Whenever he was asked to stop being naughty he'd threaten to leave (but such manipulation is nothing new - some of the boys who have been with us for months still use that trick). Each time he would ask for his few personal possessions and wait by the front gate, he could be distracted by my quickly suggesting a bike ride or a game of dominoes (which he never tired of). When he could finally be distracted no more, I ran down the street after him (you'd be surprised how fast he can go on one leg and a pair of crutches) and asked him the obvious. The pain of separation from his brother and from the street was clearly too much. No amount of exhortation would move him. He was gone.

At this point, I'd like to share part of a documentary that was aired on national television the week that W left. He (and his brother) were the central focus of the film. If you can tolerate the rather sensationalist direction, the first few minutes give an idea of the children we work with on the street.

When children we care for run away, the first thought is to search out and immediately confront the child. To persist. To make them come to their senses. However, like the Prodigal Son, one often has to wait until they reach the pig pen before they are ready to come home. Only then does the Father respond. But when he does, he runs to meet his son!

I read this recently:

"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." UCB (29th April, 2010)

The team was in sombre mood in the early afternoon and I spent some time in prayer alone. After initially deciding against going into the centre, I grabbed my bag and headed for the central bus station. Why else would W have told me where he was going?, I thought.

Random Observations #12

I have often given a silent sigh when the seat next to me, once vacant, becomes occupied by someone not smelling so good, or rather overweight, or a little dirty.

How much worse would it be for no-one to want to sit next to me?

Putting the "B" into BRIC

The trouble, say critics, is that much of the extra government spending is turning out to be permanent—and so the economy is starting to resemble a Toyota with the accelerator stuck to the floor.

The Economist, May 20th, 2010

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Un-Brazilian #2

Blue/Green eyes? Check.
Ringlets? Check.
Pearly-white complexion? Check.

I couldn't tell whether the toothpicks (palitos) that I excavated from the kitchen were deliberately retro or merely incredibly old. Either way, they are (for me at least) un-Brazilian.

Monday, May 10, 2010

A New Season (Part 2)

A street fight provides the context for a return to the street. A dispute among the older children and an ugly brawl ensues. D - a boy we later take in - grabs a rock and smashes it against another boy's face. A member of our team withdraws, feeling nauseous.

It was Friday, and I pressed the team to return to the street one more time before the weekend. We had sufficient volunteers and a good variety of activities for the following few days. It was the right move: that night, three boys returned to the house. One of them was W, who I last saw crying on the pavement as we left the street the previous Tuesday evening. He was crying because of his 15 year old brother who he was always with on the street (but who we were unable to help since he is too old for the rescue house). An incomprehensible dilemma, but an entirely understandable response. I never thought I'd see him enter the gates of the rescue house, but here he was, and I was filled with joy.

Snot, drool, blood, sweat. Wounds old and new need to be dressed and redressed. I exercise a type of triage so that the boys are washed and ready for dinner without delay. How do you remove wood glue from skin? (W is literally covered in the stuff). Google it. T-shirts are removed to reveal hideous scars (knife wounds? cigarette ends?).

Interacting with the kids over the following few days, it becomes immediately apparent that they are extremely needy of attention. Not only the constant requests to be present during the most rudimentary and mundane activities (brushing teeth, making the bed), but also when diving into the pool, flying a kite or playing football. It is as if each of the boys in these few days is making up for a lifetime's deficit of love and attention. As if this is their chance, their one opportunity to be recognized (once again) as children – playing, joking, farting – and not as vermin; not as pests. This is their chance for affirmation (“well done, J!” as he manages to swim a width of the pool; “fantastic, W!” as he launches a kite high into the sky, against all odds). Ideally, the ratio of helper and child at this point should be 1:1. A child left alone for even ten minutes can begin to think of (and long for) the street again. However, we simply don't have the staff.

My focus during the Acampamento was to demonstrate as much love, attention and joy to the kids as possible. I take the view that kids won't be interested in words of instruction and guidance (why would a child want to come from the street – where there are literally no rules – to a place where it is no longer acceptable to spit or swear or use the cat as a doormat?) unless they first know that you love them and want the very best for them. It may be clichéd, but it's still true: people don't care how much you know, until they know how much you care.

And what can one draw from five long days with six street children, except perhaps bland generalizations?
  • Most are shrewd and manipulative: I am reminded of Orwell in Down and Out in Paris and London – a book I enjoyed not for its graphic descriptions of poverty, but for when the paupers used Christian charity as a means to an end.
“You 'ad your bun,” said another; “you got to pay for it.”
Pray for it, you mean...”
  • Fear is ever-present: some cutlery falls to the floor and W covers his head, instinctively.
  • When asked to list those things that each of the boys desired most inside their hearts, J wrote, “muito paz” (much peace). I discover later that the last time he smoked crack was the day he came off the street. When asked how he deals with the cravings, he said simply "I go for a swim in the pool". That explains why J swims. A lot.
  • W (12 years old), points at a picture of himself that I had printed and pinned on the wall, turns to me and says “who's that?”
The week ends, as planned, with an explanation of how the house functions and an extension of invitations to each of the boys to stay. D signals his discontent by storming out, scaling the external wall, climbing onto the roof and systematically begins to remove the tiles and toss them into the street below. He laughed and taunted us as each one cascaded down and smashed to smithereens below. The police were called.

At the end of the week, of the six children who were with us for the first time, four decide to return to their lives on the street and two are added to our number. We will return to the streets in the usual way and seek to add further children in the coming weeks.

The following day, a neighbour pauses as I sweep up the debris from the 30 or so tiles in the road and, looking up at the bare wooden support beams of the decimated roof, says sympathetically “bad storm we had last night”.

“Er, yes” I reply.

Monday, May 3, 2010


I have been musing recently on our North American neighbour's tendency to label activities "un-American", by which I think various administrations mean "un-US" (which makes me think what might happen if the United Nations also adopted such verbiage - would an activity be considered un-UN?, but I digress). The habit predates McCarthy's "House Committee on Un-American Activities" and is usually added to Bills to blackmail congressmen into voting for them ("you mean you voted against the Un-American [insert name] Bill? - Traitor!").

South of the equator, we openly borrow much from our northern neighbour, but the trend to adopt wholesale branding disturbs me. So I begin today an infrequent series on "Un-Brazilian" observations.

I start with a popular brand of coffee whose filter box is emblazoned with a very white couple (mother and daughter? neighbours? rich lady and elderly help?) which one just wouldn't see, even in the most southern part of Brazil. The hair, the clothes...I'm not sure about the coffee, but the whole scene has a distinctly Scandinavian whiff about it.

How's my driving?

The bumpy ride into town threatened to put my spine out of place. The bus stopped abruptly and I lost my grip on the handrail and, consequentially, my footing. Twisting sideways, the comic scene culminated in an uncontrollable lurch backwards, and I landed squarely on the lap of the middle-aged lady sitting in the disabled seat. What followed must have been a delayed reflex action, because my arms shot backwards to cushion the fall and I elbowed her in the face. She started crying. I asked whether she was hurt and apologised profusely. She ignored me and kept on crying. I asked again, by which time some of the other passengers began tittering. There was no blood and no response, just a telenovela-style sobbing. I was mortified by my clumsiness.

Random Observations #11

The local addicts are becoming increasing brazen. I have become accustomed to seeing kids smoking crack during the day in the city's squares, but recently the clientele of our crack-dealing neighbours who live in the marshlands behind the house (and who typically consume their poison in the privacy of the same) are now gathering in groups by the shores of Guarapiranga, where I take the boys cycling and to fly their kites.

The lake is, of course, popular with less dependant smokers. Teenagers gathering to smoke weed (with give-away guilty stares I long to capture in print) are commonplace and I tolerate them - provided that they do not come within sniffing distance of the children. I am equally protective when it comes to people spray-painting their garage doors. Call me reactionary, but I prefer not to have a smell trigger a memory (and a longing) in my wards. Not now. Not on my watch.

The addicts look so...stupefied. I am reminded of something I read by Jeremly Clarke:

"I think that in years to come we will know which generation people belong to by the kind of brain damage they have. The ecstasy generation won't be able to remember their own names, the coke generation will be depressed, and the ketamine generation will have slipped below octopus and the cockle in the IQ stakes." (The Spectator, 6 February 2010)

I see Alessandro, a local addict who I have become friends with. He is as thin as a promise, and I give him any food we may have left over from time to time. Always half naked, he even sells his clothes for crack. He is too high to notice me, but his friend gives a territorial nod, and I thumb a polite reply.