Monday, December 31, 2012

Saturday, December 29, 2012


“The countenances of children, like those of animals, are masks, 
not faces, for they have not yet developed a significant profile of their own.”  ~ Auden

Friday, December 21, 2012

That's Christmas 2012 wrapped up!

Woman’s Hour, BBC Radio 4, 11th December 2012

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Fun in the Sun

“Death is the sound of distant thunder at a picnic.” 
~ Auden

Cool design, I said

...before I realised he was using spit

Friday, December 7, 2012

What time is it, J?

conceivably one of them could be noon, but certainly not all

Technically, school ends on December 21, but of course the teachers have already started to tell the children simply not to bother coming in. I found it hard not to contain my anger when V told me his teacher had the audacity to tell the students in class they were to have a four page test the following day, but if they didn’t want to take it, they didn’t have to come in. 

How to nurture respect for authority when our children are faced with such nonsense? What horrors are shared in the privacy of the classroom but not aired to the parents outside of it? And does anyone really care if (as is usually the case) most parents are as ignorant of such matters as their kin?
In a comic twist, J actually passed the year, whatever that means. In reality, it means that he is twelve years old, cannot read the time on an analogue clock, is functionally illiterate and the teachers can’t face the challenge of another year with him.

Ignorance, it seems, is the new poverty.

“Even if peace were declared tomorrow, how could this army of youth rebuild the nation, if they cannot read or write?”
Afghanistan: What does ‘school’ mean? 
UNICEF, April 1990

Thanks for the compliment, R

it felt funny too

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Monday, November 26, 2012

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Caring for the carers

A rare weekend off and I take the opportunity to catch up with C, the younger of two brothers who were at the rescue house three years ago. Just turned fourteen (although you wouldn’t guess it from his height), he really appreciated the impromptu visit and a chance to take a recently donated inflatable boat out onto the lake near his home.

As I peeled the leaches off the soles of my feet, I reflected on a recent string of calls he made to the house. I know things are tougher at home than he lets up, but the idea of the visit was to give him a little respite from his younger siblings (responsibility for whom has been thrust on him at such a young age), not to pry.  

Cs situation is no different to hundreds of thousands of his contemporaries in this most warped of familial infrastructures, where mothers must work because of absentee fathers and older sons are obliged to take their mother’s place as primary care-giver to the children. No time, no chance for the kids just to be kids. Not just losing a dad, but a childhood too.

Why do my sunglasses always look cooler on kids?

Blood: giving and taking

Well here’s a novel idea for Britain and the US to reduce their burgeoning prison populations: get convicted criminals to give blood in lieu of serving time.

The local rag (Estadão) calls it “giving back to the community”, but is it really meant to be taken quite so literally when so much innocent blood has already been spilt these last few weeks?

Thursday, November 22, 2012


Lady Pamela Hicks (Midweek, BBC Radio 4, 21st November, 2012)

Monday, November 19, 2012

Channelling Rothko

Renilson, Puzzle (2012)

Rothko, No.14 (1960)

200 murdered in 2 weeks

a torched bus near the rescue house -
police and organized gangs are waging an unofficial war

‘I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.’

Saturday, November 17, 2012


17 years today

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Sunday, October 28, 2012

War Games

“Talent hits a target no one else can hit; 
Genius hits a target no one else can see.” 
– Arthur Schopenhauer

Friday, October 26, 2012

Toys left in awkward positions #823


Victor was completing a survey today which gets distributed in the schools every year. A kind of child census with lots of intrusive questions like “Does someone help you with your school work?” or “Do you have the internet at home?”.

Question 41 related to race or, more specifically, skin colour. The toe-curling options which the poor child had to choose from would have had focus groups and racial awareness committees in the UK or US in a tailspin: “Do you consider yourself (a) white (b) black (c) brown (d) yellow or ‘of oriental origin’ or (e) indigenous.” 

Victor didn’t hesitate for a moment and - gently pinching the skin on his arm - looked up and said “indigenous”.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012


unblocker · exterminator · plumber · electrician · stonemason

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Moving Out

Finally found an exit (thanks to the wonderful generosity of friends Trent and Paige)

Saturday, October 20, 2012

DEAD, Tango!

“Seventy-four percent of dog owners believe that their dogs experience guilt.

There is plenty of evidence for what scientists refer to as primary emotions – happiness and fear, for example – in animals. But empirical evidence for secondary emotions like jealousy, pride, and guilt, is extremely rare in the animal cognition literature. The argument usually given for this lack of evidence is that such secondary emotions seem to require a level of cognitive sophistication, particularly when it comes to self-awareness or self-consciousness, that may not exist in non-human animals.”

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Self Portraits

J, W and R
V, E and W
M (“with swollen eye)

Sao Paulo Street View II

Privileged, technically

I read recently of verbal communication that:
- 7% is based on content
- 38% is based on tone of voice
- 55% is based on nonverbal signals
Considering my linguistic abilities (and I include my native tongue in this), I take great comfort in the fact that the majority of verbal communication is, in fact, non-verbal.

I never quite know if it is due to my deficiencies, their lack of concentration or ignorance of basic vocabulary or a combination of all of the above, but conversations of late have taken on a surreal quality. Sometimes I will say a word or phrase and the unfortunate recipient will smile or nod knowingly, having no idea whether I have just commented on the weather, insulted his mother or - worse still - attempted to impart some word of “wisdom”. It reminds me of conversations in Italy as a child - not knowing the Italian word, I’d add an a, o or i to the equivalent English word and express it with an air of confidence and the ubiquitous wave of the hands. Sometimes working, often backfiring hilariously. 

Three of the four brothers were called together to discuss their recent behaviour in school. Delinquent activities were - to the delight (and relief) of their exasperated teachers - on the decrease, but grades were in free-fall. Zero-sum schooling.

The discipline we had put in place for general misbehaviour in school was a complete withdrawal of privileges in the rescue house (no films, no video games etc) until behaviour improved. It was a serious discipline for a serious situation that - we explained - was not to be tolerated. In order to keep our word, privileges had to be restored, therefore. I explained that I was reluctant to do this, however, because of the obvious trade-off that had occurred. I think I used the word technically about three times during the thirty minute discussion - as if being lawyerly about it all would make the slightest bit of difference. 

A twelve year old should, I think, be familiar with the word technically, but maybe not a ten year old. At the end, as the three were getting up to leave, R looked up at me and rather sheepishly said:
“So we do have our privileges back?”
E stopped in his tracks, swung his head around and beat me to the response.
BONUS Bacon:

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Tuesday, September 25, 2012


 “Uncle Luke, my satchel is so heavy it feels like it is carrying me.”

Renilson (aged 10), on his return from school.

Banning Brazilian Boomerangs

I wrote to the New York Times a few weeks back concerning an article on various US States’ neurotic tendency to ban things. [Sample regarding the recent proposal to ban smoking in your own home: “Eventually, the push to forbid smoking in apartments was dropped, partly because it would complicate the smoking of medicinal marijuana.” Is this stuff even meant to be tongue-in-cheek?].

In my letter, I referenced a similar Orwellian disposition here in Brazil where I recently stumbled across a killjoy poster akin to that shown above near the lake next to the rescue house, but listing so many banned items that the author had to use the tiniest font possible to fit them all in. The 34 prohibited evils included riding a bike and flying a kite. Bearing in mind that the scrubland next to the lake is one of the precious few square inches in this part of the city where its tortured citizens can breath unpolluted air or even see some sky is neither here nor there - it seems - for the jobsworths at the local authority. They have even posted guards in jumpsuits who now patrol what has been rebranded a ‘park’. Green bouncers.

“I bet you’re popular with the kids,” I said wryly to a particularly mean-looking guard standing next to the sign. He ignored me and gazed disparagingly at the pathetic-looking kites which the boys were clutching (we had cycled from the rescue house to kill some time by the lake). “Do you use a gun to enforce these rules?” I asked mischievously, gesturing at the poster flapping in the wind. He explained that they were a private security firm employed by the local authority and had no police powers and no authority to enforce the rules or prevent people from entering the park. Just what this paranoid city needs, I thought: even the plants have security now.

One can smile at a list of 34 restrictions for what essentially used to be the favoured spot for criminals wanting to dump bodies and stolen burnt-out cars, but there is a wider issue here. Part of my work is to instil in the boys a sense of respect for the law and for authority (parental, teacher, or otherwise) in general - a respect often long lost or (more often) never there in the first place. A closer look at the list of prohibited activities (more the lawyer in me than any desire to comply, I assure you) provides a perfect example of my dilemma. You see, it’s not just bikes and kites, but boomerangs too!

It is yet another example of this dear country taking a good idea from another country, twisting it and in the process making it entirely impractical and open (at best) to ridicule and (at worst) to abuse, resulting - in turn - in an erosion of respect for lawmakers who seem not to understand the basic principle that laws need to be objectively reasonable (and comprehensible) if there is any hope of compliance by the people subject to them.

There is what is commonly called a “biting period” for new laws here in Brazil. If rushed-in, badly drafted legislation is more commonly observed in its breach, then after a few years it quietly disappears from the statute book because it is said not to “bite with the people”. It sounds like a laughable concept (surely the legislature should be confident in the power of their convictions?), but there are of course about-turns - large and small - in every democracy (the “poll tax” in 90s Britain was one of the most high-profile and garnered perhaps the most public ire in the decades pre-austerity), although perhaps not so frequent.

Here’s hoping the 37 don’t bite (well, there are no dogs allowed anyway).

Friday, September 21, 2012

Strange Brew

A chill wind blows this morning, bringing with it the first rain of a new season after a punishingly hot and dry month. Summer is not meant to be here for another four months

Cracks had started to appear in the ground as if the very soil itself was gasping for water. Long stretches of shrubland lay scorched by cigarette butts thrown from car windows. 

I look south from my new vantage point on the 9th floor, way down to the southern zone of the sprawling city as the smog and the filth - a putrid brown layer spreading over the horizon like Nutella - is pushed further and further away and now the only cracks are those which divide the grey-panelled skies above: the sun straining to make its comeback. The pool at the rescue house went from crystal blue to toxic black in the space of an hour as a month's worth of diesel fumes and other detritus in the atmosphere were strained from the clouds.

No swimming today in that strange brew.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Friday, August 17, 2012

Keeping mum

An endless cycle of broken glass and wet beds. And more broken glass shards on the floor and more blankets stinking of stale pee.

The epitome of it all was the somewhat comical situation that occurred after a recent family visit with a mum, when one of the four brothers came back saying “Luke, I’m ten! I’m not nine. Mum said that I was born in 2002, and she said I’m 10!”

No you’re not, I say, I have a copy of your birth certificate.

Comical, if it wasn’t so desperately sad.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

‘A camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.’ ~ Dorothea Lange

To paraphrase Smokey Robinson, if you take a good look at my more recent photographic postings, you’ll see that they might appear somewhat out of place.

Please forgive me if the eyes of a portrait seem obscured or a child’s face is artistically blurred. It is not because I have embraced the avant-garde or utilised some hideous Instagram filter, it is because the law here now requires it, and although I believe I have always complied with the spirit of the law, now I am told that I must comply with its letter. And rightly, albeit reluctantly, I concede.

To those who know me, my reluctant submission to such a requirement should come as no great surprise, as I consider photography to be an important part of my work and - not wanting to sound bombastic - my ministry, such that it is.

So, the blog will change in appearance a little, but I prefer this to the somewhat draconian approach of the private (ie invitation-only) blog, because this isn’t some sort of Gentleman’s Club and this work - and these boys’ life stories - should be open to all who stumble upon them.

confined to the noticeboard

Dad’s day, again

BBC Radio 4, “The Burton Diaries”

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Great Escape

It seems that it’s not only some of the boys...

...who want to hop run away!

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Acampamento 2012 (part II)

I always find it fascinating to watch the boys interact with others outside the home. The children at the camp were from diverse backgrounds, but the boys remained so very independent of them (which shouldn’t really come as a surprise considering their previous lives on the street, where it is often a case of survival of the fittest). Not even the young brothers R and V remained together: in public as in private, any affection between them is rarely shown (even if - one can only hope - it is felt).

M continues with his little dialogues (or, rather, monologues) with a cheerful disregard of whether someone is listening or not. A quality I sometimes wish I shared.

V responds to a mild provocation with a not-so-mild left hook and finds himself on the receiving-end of a discipline by the coordinator of the camp. I like it when others do such a good job of disciplining. He even did the Brazilian equivalent of a praise sandwich, which went a little like this:
“So, V, what have you liked about the camp so far?”

 [ V responds, looking at the floor]

“Look up at me please, V. I understand there was a little confusion today and you responded to a provocation with a punch. Here at camp, we don’t tolerate violence of any nature, so how about we make a pact? I promise that you’re going to have the best week of your life, if you promise not to retaliate when provoked.” 

[ handshake ]
It’s a shame that V didn’t heed the warning. Two days later he had another meltdown and had to be secured again. Amid the customary writhing/punching/kicking, he bit me so hard that one of his milk teeth fell out.

Needless to say, that one won’t be going under the pillow.

An exhausting week, but very enjoyable due to the planning and brilliant execution. Driving home, looking into the rear-view mirror at the four boys slumped against each other, asleep, and then catching a glimpse of my own reddened eyes in the mirror, I was reminded of that scene in Vacation.

What are you selling?

Jesus loves me this I know, for my petrol receipt tells me so

Acampamento 2012 (part I)

When Homer Simpson asked his fundamentalist neighbours where they’d been, they replied “We went away to a Christian camp. We were learning how to be more judgemental.” 

It has been some time since we have been able to send the boys away to a camp known as Jovens da Verdade (“Youth of Truth”). A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of taking the little ones – V, R, M + J – for the first week of the camp, which is held an hour outside the city on a site with outstanding facilities.

The theme was Viva La Vida! (“Live the Life!”) and through exuberant worship, inventive drama and a ton of crazy activities, the boys experienced a week like none other in their lives.

The message of one morning meeting was about defeating giants. Using the story of David, the teacher explained how he slew not one, but five giants: His father (who excluded him), the prophet (who had to be told to rise up), his brother (who taunted), the king (who doubted) and Goliath (who boasted). The teacher asked us to think about the giants in our lives that come to frustrate our dreams and our hopes of growth - things that set themselves up against God’s plan (maybe a teacher who said that we were not clever enough to be a doctor or a dad who said that we were a problem from the start and that we were not wanted).

Later that day, I spoke with J about a giant in my life that I wanted to slay/defeat and I asked him to think about a giant in his life. “Can it be a person?” he asked. I said yes. He then seemed to change his mind and said “anger”. I encouraged him and said with God’s help, we’d work on it together. “And how about you?” I asked the ten year old boy who had joined us in line for dinner (not wanting to leave him out). He looked to the floor and then looked up at me and said “loneliness and solitude”. I had to look away, because it was one of those comments that was so unexpected, yet so frank that it made my eyes well up. 

The teacher did a good job. We have some giants to slay.

[ An edited version of this entry was featured in my latest newsletter. ]

Toys left in awkward positions #435

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Settling for scraps

There’s a chick among the recent hatchlings that stands out. Not for its particular beauty or tenacious survival in the somewhat hostile environment of the chicken run, but for the fact that it lives a solitary life away from its mum and siblings.

Although spoilt for food, while the others are fighting over the fresh corn or rice on the ground below, this rather sad-looking chick chooses to remain on the mankiest perch, where all the other chickens defecate. And there, as if cheerfully oblivious of the cornucopia (pardon the pun) below, he gladly pecks away at the mites that feast on the detritus. 

M ran away (again) at the end of last week, and it would appear that my short history here is already repeating itself (he did exactly the same thing at the same time last year, after the same period of time with us). M reminds me of W in many respects: both marked by physical and/or psychological trauma, both have mental ages far less than their actual ones, both have lived on the street for so many years that memories of home (if any) are only painful ones and both (now) are back on the street.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Tuesday, July 17, 2012


The lady behind the McDonald’s register didn’t have any change.

Reaching across the counter, she upturned the collection box for disabled children and spilled the contents in front of me like the innards of a sacrificial calf. After fingering several coins, she proffered them up to me.

“You can’t do that”, I said indignantly. She looked at me, a little bewildered at my comment. 

What would Ronald think?

Monday, July 16, 2012

What’s Hot

blazing down a catwalk near you soon

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Oh, Bob

Letting the older boys choose their own kites was a responsibility that I thought they might be able to handle without heavy-handed supervision. I was wrong. They returned, sheepishly clutching various designs of Bob Marley (smoking an oversized joint, accessorised with a decorative motive of marijuana leaves), together with an evil clown print (the tattoo equivalent of which is favoured by the less discerning gang members in these parts).

With self-righteous zeal, J commented to me afterwards “They had Bob Marley on their kites. Do you know who he is?”. He paused and looked up at me for a response before solemnly answering his own question. “He created marijuana.”

Saturday, July 7, 2012

still here, but a bit out of tune of late

Monday, June 4, 2012