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Brazzil - People - August 2004

William Taught Me All I Needed About Brazil

In the Brazilian Northeast, a land haunted by deserts, the parties,
the music, and the poetry never end. You will find many good
souls, and you will hear stories about men and women that
once walked this land. The people who told me stories that made
me weep would make sure that at the end of the day I was smiling.

Nicholas Arons


Picture My best friend in Brazil was named William. He was seventeen years old when I first met him, though he looked like he could be no older than twelve. He was very short for his age, emaciated from hunger, and in a perpetual state of debilitation from poor vision and hearing.

He could not walk well because of a bad knee that was never diagnosed or cured. He was born during a drought and was not fed adequately; his short size and weakness were the results. In other words, he was "stunted." He fared better than two of his siblings, who did not survive the droughts of 1979 and 1993.

Watching him play soccer was difficult, for his desire and love for the game were obvious though he could not run after the ball. His friends let him play anyway, for they knew his determination was exhausting. His home was the small town of Retiro, in the município of Macaíba, where I spent two months in 1996.

No one in Retiro owned a pair of shoes, clothing beyond what they were wearing, or a toothbrush. A few chickens and a dog were the most any family could hope for in the small rural community. I tried joining the daily soccer games but could not because everyone played barefoot on a dirt field full of rocks, glass, pebbles, chickens, and trash. I watched instead.

William had long brown hair, sharp green eyes, and the sharpest mind and largest heart I have ever known. He read everything that he could get his hands on and devoured each work. He taught himself to read at age five and worked out an arrangement with the local elementary schoolteacher: she would bring him old newspapers each week when she came to teach her lessons.

He would always ask me for old magazines and periodicals. Even if they were a year old he would read, reread, and treasure these publications. Retiro did not have a high school, so he began, at age fourteen, to teach youths how to read, write, and count.

He spent countless hours preparing for these classes and writing letters to local officials requesting funds and supplies for his students' education. I admired William for his passion, intelligence, and effort to change his community.

His family life was a difficult one. His father was a farmer, but also an alcoholic who would drink away any savings that he had. William helped in the fields as well, starting at five in the morning, taking a break for his class, and then resuming the difficult labor in the afternoon. They worked on land belonging to someone else, keeping a portion of the harvest for themselves.

Life and Death

William and I would stay up late each night when he was not too tired. The day took a real toll on him, and sometimes he would fall asleep while we spoke. There was no electricity in William's home, and candles were too expensive, so we would talk in darkness, hoping some nights that the moon would provide enough light for us at least to see one another.

We spoke about life, about death, about our fears and expectations. He would sometimes bless the evening with his ancient guitar, which exuded the sweet melodies of the sertão, and would speak of good times and bad, most often about saudades. He loved Portuguese fados and Brazilian lullabies. When I brought candles, we would play checkers or read passages to each other from our favorite books.

William's dream was to go to school one day, to any school. He did not care about the subject matter, he said. He simply wanted the opportunity to learn. At that time, he had his heart set on a basic computer course in a nearby city, Macaíba, which guaranteed students jobs upon completion. He needed to be with other students.

His family could not afford an education, however, much less the transportation from Retiro to Macaíba. His destiny was to remain in Retiro and work the same land his father worked, maybe one day earning enough to buy his own plot of land. His mother supported his desire to go to school and had saved money from washing clothes to help him in this endeavor, until one day his father discovered the plan.

He told William he could not leave Retiro because he was needed on the farm and the family could not forsake his salary, which was close to ten dollars a week. His father took the money his mother had saved, nearly enough to buy William the books and bus ticket he needed to start school, and spent it on alcohol. William would have to wait.

The summer ended, and I had to leave. Saying good-bye to William was hard. He knew I was returning to a university in the United States, with a library large enough to keep him happy for a lifetime. He knew that I would be sitting in classrooms learning about things he would never learn and reading books he would never read. Saying good-bye was harder for him.

He asked me to bring him my old books if I ever returned. I said that of course I would. He told me he was grateful for my friendship, that he wished me well, and I did not know quite what to say. He had already changed my life.

Making Friends

I returned to northeast Brazil nine months later and planned on visiting William when I had the time. I was the assistant project director of a program called Amigos de las Americas, which worked through local agencies to improve public health in nine communities in the sertão. We built latrines, gave presentations on community sanitation, distributed toothbrushes, and donated fruit trees to rural communities.

Working with government agencies intended to serve the general public was a challenging experience and meant that I had to become friendly with many politicians who were helping us with our work. One such government official worked at the National Health Foundation. He had obtained the job with the help of his father, a former state senator.

He invited me one night to a party at a fazenda in the interior. Although I preferred not to attend, my supervisor suggested that it made sense for me to befriend someone in a position of power who could help us with our work. We drove for some time in darkness, talking about the United States and my family, until we turned into a fazenda that looked familiar. I did not know where I was when we entered the party. I walked in with my host and took a seat at the table with him. He introduced me to other politicians and landowners from Natal.

Servants delivered steaks, beer, and caipirinhas (lime-flavored cachaça drinks) to our table, and the men devoured the food, consuming much alcohol and meat.

I am a vegetarian, and my job prohibited me from drinking alcohol, so I politely drank soft drinks and watched in shock and tempered amusement as the men told jokes about "whores" while their wives sat nearby, spoke of "hicks" who were serving them food, laughed about the homosexuals they had passed on the street, and made denigrating comments to the dark-skinned waiters.

Although I was angry, I was not prepared to tell this official and his drinking companions that they were offending me, especially because I was the only outsider. I kept my mouth shut.

After a few more drinks, the conversation became increasingly crude, and I excused myself to the restroom. I walked around in darkness, wishing I had stayed home. As I returned to the table, I noticed that the men were giving one waiter an especially hard time, throwing beer at him and laughing at his awkward walk and stunted size.

They started yelling at him, calling him "half-breed," lazy, good for nothing, ugly, and stupid. One man sprayed ketchup in his face, and everyone laughed. The waiter just stared back with scared and sharp green eyes, taking the abuse in silence. When they were done, he asked if they needed anything else and walked away.

Like a Clown

The minute I saw the waiter, I knew it was William. I could tell from his posture, compensating for a bad knee. I saw his face covered in steak, beer, and ketchup from my host's plate. I wanted to grab bottles of beer and smash them in these men's faces and yell, "You are not half as smart as William."

But I did not. I hadn't seen him since I said good-bye nine months earlier, and he looked even more emaciated, pale, and tired. He looked like a dwarf, or clown, covered in ketchup and beer. This is the boy who had to teach himself to read, who played soccer barefoot but could not run after the ball, who started a school in his community.

Here I was, on the wrong side of the table, with the people spraying the ketchup, apart from my friend because I am rich and he is poor. "I am with the wrong people," I kept thinking, as if it were a sudden revelation.

Our eyes met, and a feeling of sorrow, regret, and unbelievable guilt consumed my heart. I had not yet made it to see him. He knew my seat was next to the man who had just sprayed him with ketchup. I approached him, but before I could speak, he turned quickly and walked away. He had just been humiliated.

After a few tense moments at the table, I got up and went to speak to William. I finally found him in the kitchen. He saw me, came out, and we hugged. I apologized for the people at the table. He hardly noticed, he said. It happened all the time.

I told him I was sorry I had not yet made it to see him and asked how he was doing. His brother and mother were sick, he said, and his dad was still drinking. He was working nights at parties to make enough money to buy medication for his brother. His dream of an education was dead.

He proudly told me that he was learning English. I asked where and how, and he replied that it was easy to learn from the Time and Newsweek magazines I had left with him. He said he had to get back to work, and I promised to come see him soon.

As I drove home with the man who invited me to the party, he scolded me for not being friendly or appreciative that he had taken me to an exclusive party. We drove through slums as he ridiculed the lazy people inside, and all I could think about as I listened to this diatribe against the poor was that William was probably cleaning up after the politicians or walking home barefoot to his home made of dirt and straw, where there was never enough to eat.

Two months later I showed up in Retiro, but William's house was no longer there. The adobe structure had fallen apart, and only a dirt foundation remained. A man who lived down the road recognized me. "William left," he told me.

"His brother died, and they have moved to a new fazenda, but he left you this note." The note read: "Dear Nicholas, Take it easy, but take it." He had quoted Pete Seeger, an American folksinger whose lyrics I enjoyed sharing with him.

Love Lesson

I have spent so many months in this region, and yet I hardly know anything more about the Northeast than when I first set foot there. Instead of becoming a Brazilianist, I found an exciting world in this country, full of wonderful people, all hoping and praying that somewhere in their tumultuous existences they might find peace.

They do not preach at press conferences like their North American counterparts. They know how to forgive. They know how to love. They understand how to make someone feel at home. That is what they did for me.

I saw parts of myself I never knew existed, families getting along in ways I never before imagined, beauty and love and life in people and places I had never before thought to look. I learned that it can be very hard to do good. Uphill battles are difficult to endure. I learned that one must always improvise to the best of one's abilities. After all, I was only twenty years old.

I was awed by the way strangers opened up their homes and hearts and by the natural beauty of this part of the world. The beauty of the Northeast is magical. I think sometimes it is dreamlike. I once watched a full moon rise in front of a rainbow behind a giant sand dune, and I thought my eyes were deceiving me. I found many great people whom I will never forget.

They are still there, right now, strumming, spinning, blowing, and pounding away on their instruments of choice, hoping that somewhere in the cacophony they can find symphony to which they can add a little something. I left Brazil alone, as I once entered it, in search of family and friends with whom to play the time away. I cannot say that I share William's pain or have experienced anything close to what this young man has felt. I cannot claim that I share his agony over not being able to drink potable water or to walk, see correctly, or hear well, for I can do all of these things with ease. But I do feel his loss.

Sometimes if I try hard, when I am in the right mood, I can close my eyes and drift over the towns I saw in Brazil. I feel in many ways like the acauã, agile and swift as I fly over hills and valleys of dry land and hungry people, over old riverbeds, dusty hamlets, and soccer fields.

Like the patativa, now an endangered species, flying over a history of endurance, I can look at a reservoir that is empty, a priest who will never surrender, a village that will never give in. If I try really hard, I can still picture the school in Lagoa de Serrote, the soccer field in Retiro, and William teaching his pupils, chasing a soccer ball, limping back from a hard day's work in the fields, and smiling after he read a funny passage or some pithy prose—like when he suddenly looked up from a book one day and said, "You know, Nicholas, I really like this line. `Take it easy, but take it.'"

There, in northeast Brazil, the sea finds its shores, the land begins abruptly, and the earth finds its rhythm as the zona da mata meets the zona do sertão. The rains of mango flow into the rains of the cashew with seemingly monotonous ease, an ebb and flow I wish I could incorporate into my life.

The June festivals become the November pilgrimages; as the weather becomes warmer and the air drier, the Christmas prayers turn into Carnaval debauchery, Lent withdrawal becomes Holy Week, and, again, the bonfires and forró of June return.

The rest is really superfluous, for all that happened in between is that some rich men became richer and some politicians were defrocked, although some people, like me, wish they could be tarred and feathered.

All the Gods

I learned that we never really know what to do in this life we try to lead. So we improvise. We take shortcuts and then backtrack; we try some things, learning from our mistakes, but we never give up. The winds blow stronger, summer heat and hope become fall lamentations, but autumn brings color to the air and the flesh, and loved ones find out if they will find poetry again.

There is a church of the god of your choice in northeast Brazil; there is time that never drowns out love; there are flowers that take time to blossom and sadness that hangs but then vanishes like sheets waving on cloudy beaches, tossed by currents that know no borders, that carried the songs from Assaré and Juazeiro to Fortaleza in my arms.

See: a boy who never gave up. Hear: sounds of silent nights when through the darkness you can see so many stars. Look: the priest is putting away his books and calling it a night. Believe: the landless will inherit this earth.

The land ends, and the largest freshwater river in the world begins. In between is what was once a tropical rain forest, what has become a living hell to some, an open vein to others, but heaven to most. A contradiction that will forever baffle and amaze me.

In a land haunted by deserts, the parties, the music, and the poetry never end. You will find many good souls, and you will hear stories about men and women that once walked this land. A man named Francisco, gunned-down at twenty-eight. Patativa do Assaré, taken away at ninety-three. Eloi Teles has left his stage.

Many could not weather the storm. The sadness was so great it overwhelmed me. It made me sit up at night and cry. And yet the people who told me stories that made me weep would not let it end that way; they made sure that at the end of the day I was smiling. It had to end that way, and so I smiled. With Jaymes. At Rachel de Queiroz. With Guilherme. At Jerônimo. With my advisor.

Why did I write this book? That should be by now obvious.

For William.

Nicholas Arons has worked as a writer for international policy think tanks, at the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, at public defender legal offices, for civil liberties organizations, and as a non-violence educator. He observed the impact of economic sanctions and U.S. bombings in Iraq, publishing his findings in Fellowship, UTNE Reader, Punk Planet, Counterpunch, Foreign Policy in Focus, and Iraq Under Siege.
He is the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship to research the culture of drought in Brazil, a graduate of Yale College and NYU School of Law, and is currently an Institute for International Law and Justice Fellow at NYU School of Law. His book Waiting for Rain - The Politics and Poetry of Drought in Northeast Brazil can be found at http://www.uapress.arizona.edu/books/bid1553.htm or amazon.com. Comments welcome at nicholas.arons@aya.yale.edu.

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