Monday, November 17, 2008

Venturing in to the Jequitinhonha Valley

By Scott Phillips, Regional Development Officer (Great Lakes Region) for Christian Children's Fund

Bom Gia, or good morning, from the Jequitinhonha Valley of Brazil. I am spending a few days visiting projects and programs that CCF has in this intriguing area of Brazil, which I have been told are some of the best CCF operates.

After arriving at 4:30 a.m. in Belo Horizonte, the capital city of Minas Gerais, Brazil, I met up with Dalton Said of CCF’s national office in Belo. Dalton introduced me to my traveling companion, Ana Paula, also from our office in Belo. Ana is charged with fundraising from companies in Brazil.

We set off on a 12-hour bus ride from Belo to the town where we will begin our adventure, Aracuai, in the Valley, and arrived to steady rain.

The entire Jequitinhonha Valley is chronically without water and is currently struggling with the worst drought anyone there can recall. Needless to say, residents are happy with the rain, even though it may be too little too late.

We went from the bus station to the Association office in Aracuai and from there to the town of Alfredo Graca. This is a community of 400-plus people. It’s so small it doesn’t even show up on any local maps.

The town refers to their difference in property as “water land” – land close to the river – and “land” – for everywhere else; a nod to just how important water is.

The community has a water distribution system for the river water, but it’s so polluted that it is rarely drinkable. Pollution stems from the lack of community municipal waste collection and, therefore, sewage being drained into the river.

Our visit to Alfredo Graca was centered on the “Little Houses of Culture.” This space is utilized to foster the local culture, to promote the socialization and integration of different generations, the practice of good citizenship, and the Family Income Generation Program (MEDI).

We met a group of four women from MEDI called the “Seed of Hope.” These four also come from a group of 22 families living on government provided land.

For 10 years they will pay a single fee to the government, after which they will finally own the land together. The families also have a piece of “water land” for cultivation work.

In this group’s “Little House of Culture” there is an oven to bake a local cookie made of flour and cheese that is almost in the shape of a pretzel. There also is a wood-burning stove on which they cook their fruit and vegetables for jellies, candy and a juice-based drink, a sink and a large open pan like a huge wok.

From nothing, these four women now have a license from the government to prepare and sell their food products. They sell at the local market in Alfredo Graca, a fixed location in Aracuai, the market and at festivals in other communities in Minas Gerais. They now even have a spot at a market in Belo.

Before their next license inspection, the “Seed of Hope” has big plans to fulfill. They must move their hand-washing sink into a new room in order to make a new clothes-changing space and add an impermeable layer to the roof. They also want to add a room with a gas industrial stove, a refrigerator and better work space for food preparation.

The group also insisted we see their “water land” and as we walked through the town of Alfredo Graca, I got a better feel for the community. In the center of town is a pretty church with a small square in front. The streets are all simple dirt roads and the homes along the roads vary in their condition and size.

Many women can be seen sitting in their homes, looking out the windows on the town and chatting with anyone who happens to come by. These women are the living embodiment of the fofoqueria dolls I see everywhere.

Fofoqueria means “gossip” in Portuguese. A doll made locally out of clay mimics the women who sit in their windows and gossip to pass the news of the community along. I see no cars in town, but note one motorbike (or moto as residents call them), and lots of horses!

Many of the homes have been painted with sand art. The women discovered that while they could not afford paint for their homes, they could use sand. With some native coloring agents they create different color sands and then mix them with an adhesive and paint their homes with the mixture to make them unique.

After we arrived at the “water land” we were able to tour a school that is a partnership with CCF Brazil, the community, the local government and the parents of the children. Among other efforts this school feeds 100 high-risk students (special needs and at risk for malnutrition), ecology efforts and efforts at educating about dengue fever.

They have a community garden in the back for their nutrition programs and they also have a classic rooftop rainwater catchment system to gather rainwater. These catchments are a basic idea, but a good one. And while CCF has placed many of these around the country, residents tell me they need thousands more, especially for individual homes.

On the way back to the inn we stopped at a fair trade handicrafts store. This store is staffed by students in the area and they specialize in art made from recycled parts. The art is amazing.

If they would only have been able to ship, I'd have a new dinner table made from wonderful wood recaptured from old homes with iron work in the center from recycled industrial parts, or at least a spectacular iron angel (sigh).

Tomorrow I’m on to Virgem da Lapa and the Family Agricultural School.

No comments: