The following post was written by Anna Irrera for her Anthropology class on human rights and social justice. It documents her observations from her time spent in Brazil.
“Following my experience in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil working for OAF (Organizaçao de Auxilio Fraterno) an NGO located in the most populous favela of one of the biggest cities of Brazil, I have become acquainted with the language, the population and culture of another nation, in so many ways very distant from my own. This organization is engaged in numerous and diverse activities to help disadvantaged children and adolescents of Salvador’s favelas. Among its sectors it contains, a foster home with 80 to 100 children, a primary school with over 600 children, a professional school with over 6,000 students, one of the first hands-on science museums in South America and a factory that helps sustain the entire project. It is considered by the Inter-American Development Bank as one of the most successful development projects for childhood and adolescence in all of South-America. While spending so much time there I have met many children whose past is sometimes even too scary to tell. They are often victims of psychological and physical violence by family members, neighbours, strangers, the police and even each other.
What follows are 7 short stories based on a significant event experienced by children I have met in Salvador. Each story’s title is a particular right that these children are entitled to according to the Brazilian Statute of the Child and Adolescent that was approved in July 1990. Brazil was the first country in Latin America to incorporate in its legal system, a law directly aimed at improving the life of children and adolescents through establishing their rights. However because of innumerable reasons these rights are far from being respected.
Story 1: The child and adolescent have the right to protection of life and health, through effective implementation of public social policies that make possible birth and healthy and harmonious development in dignified conditions of existence
This is the story of a baby girl who lived for less than a month. She suffered from Down’s syndrome and severe heart deficiency. She was abandoned on the street at birth, hence she had no name, no birth certificate and then of course no death certificate. After having found her the Tribunal for Minors sent her to OAF. Sadly after a week she passed away. The day of her funeral was a typical winter day in Bahia, rainy and incredibly humid. Everyone was busy so I was sent to the cemetery, with a former menina de rua, who now works in OAF’s administration. Being in a poor neighbourhood the cemetery is incredibly degraded. Three years have passed since then, but I can still remember that day as it was yesterday. When someone evokes the right to life I think of her and wonder whether this right becomes insignificant if one isn’t guaranteed a dignified existence.
We lay still as the rain hits the red soil and from the puddles of mud tiny rivers flow down the hill and towards the nearby road. There is no grass in this cemetery, just red dirt and sparse patches of weed. The rainy winter has caused the land to slide, uncovering remains of previous burials. The lingering stench from the nearby obituary where caskets lay open awaiting for someone to identify their eternal guest, is mixed with the odour of the rotten flowers scattered on the soil. This is the cemetery for the city’s biggest favela. There is nothing decorous and sacred about it, it is not a place for people to come to and pay their respects to the dead. The city makes little effort to give dignity to the favelados when they are alive let alone when they die. Second class citizens are given a second class cemetery.
There are many like me here. Some older and some younger, but of course there is no way to really tell who was born before or later. The thousands of little white crosses that mark our place in this cemetery only indicate the day we departed this world. If it weren’t for the size and colour of these crosses it would be hard to tell that all of us are children. An object so austere and modest might seem insignificant in this crowded, loud and colourful city but for me, as for many of us, my wooden cross is the only visible record of my existence. For someone like me, it stands as the only sign of recognition the world has ever given us.
I don’t have many memories of my brief life, just a strong sense of cold loneliness that accompanies flashing images of what surrounded me. As an unborn, I never felt the warmth of my mother’s womb; I was simply an unwanted guest inside of her. As a temporary disease she wanted to get rid of. So when we finally parted I passed from the iciness of her womb to the chilly and wet asphalt of some anonymous street.
In the chaos of Salvador, a young girl crouching in the shadows can easily pass unnoticed even when she is giving birth to a child. Thousands of people pass by, each one of them immersed in his thoughts and troubles. I don’t wish to blame her for what she did. How could she have loved me when no one had ever loved her? How could she have known the importance of a mother’s embrace if she had never been held herself? Just like me she had no one to show her the meaning of motherhood. Born only 15 years before me in these same streets her life had offered her nothing. No dreams and aspirations, abstract things are a luxury reserved for those who do not lack basic material needs. When you are a menina de rua, and sell your body for a warm plate of rice and beans the only extravagance the world grants you is a scrap of chicken on a lucky day.
She could have never even taught me how to distinguish right from wrong. When you are a child of the streets the void in your stomach speaks louder than your conscience and life is just a struggle for survival. Right is simply anything that gets you by. I cannot accuse her of anything, she gave me what she had to offer; nothing. She might not have even hoped that somebody would have found me and saved my life. To her, the word life cannot carry a profound and sacred meaning. Experience taught her that life was not worth living, and that was the only thing she could have passed on to me. The right to life is fundamental when being alive means more than survival.
Can anyone judge her for not having assured me the right to a dignified existence when all society had taught her was that life was worth so little? If she were to speak in account of her actions she would probably say she did what she had to do.
Amidst the turmoil of the street someone found me and did what they had to do. I was brought to the neighbourhood hospital, where they discovered about my heart’s weakness and my 21st chromosome. They knew I would not resist long but nevertheless from there I was sent to the Juizado9 where they placed me in the tiny basement room used as nursery for the abandoned children not yet sent to an orphanage. What I can still remember is the silence in that basement. Over twenty-five babies and toddlers, not one of them crying or moving. They had cried before, but since no one had ever responded to their wailing they had learned to stop. I was kept there for several days until finally I was assigned to an orphanage where for the first time I was taken well care of. But my heart was too weak to keep me alive much longer. I left the world only twenty-three days after I had left my mother’s womb.
When a child of the street dies no one takes notice. As I had no birth certificate those who were taking care of me could not request a death certificate. I had officially never come to this world so I could not officially have left it. Unlike other meninas de rua I was given a funeral and placed where my body lays today. As customary my body was covered with white daisies before the casket was closed and carried to the hill. There were only four people at my burial; two gringas10, a woman from the orphanage and the man with the shovel. The cemetery chaplain did not come, he charges 70.00 Reais per burial, nearly half the amount of a minimum salary.
There was nothing ceremonious about my burial. I left anonymously; exactly how I had come. I didn’t leave anything behind, not even a name for anyone to remember me by. The world never acknowledged me and probably never would have; yet I still wish my heart would have been stronger. From the windows of the houses in front of the hill I often hear a song playing and it sounds like hope. [...]
For someone to sing this song there must be something intrinsically beautiful and special about life no matter what happens. I just wish I had been given the chance to find it out.”
Anna just recently published her first book of stories on the favelas of Brazil and can be found in Italian here: Prendo A Calci Il Sole