After exploring Plataforma community, the second part of the Welcome Tour took us to Itapagipe peninsula, a not far area of north-western suburban Salvador, known as Alagados.
Uruguai welcomes us with a warm hug in the midst of where there was once a landfill.
Smiles surround us as we stepped down from the van in the main community square.
Both my curious mind and my purple notepad are ready to diligently absorb all the details and the stories that have been growing on these lands.
I look around in the unknown territory and I notice both new and familiar faces, united by a sense of hospitality held in their looks.
A group of people start to gather in the small football ground next to the parked van. That’s my group. I pause my visual wondering and I rush to meet the others.
Julia McNaught da Silva of ComuniCulturi -the organiser and coordinator of the Tour- is getting ready with other women and a group of young chaps that are stretching around and giggling with each other. Their comfortable movements leave no doubts that they are from the community, and most probably our guides.
We form a big circle, standing together in the middle of the football ground. Few boys have suspended their ball game to let us use the space, and they are now watching us attentively, with a look halfway between curious and puzzled. They follow every movement we make like they are trying to read our minds through our body language while standing on the wired net that limits the football grounds, keeping their ball rolling back and forwards under their quite feet.
The young chaps look ready to take the word and start introducing us to their community, at least is what we all expect. I am ready to listen, as I think are all the others, by the look of their wide-open eyes and faces.
Surprisingly, though, we are asked to talk first.
Baffled faces are looking around for an answer, and for a moment, mine is too. Until my dusty memory reminds me of it. “The circle, of course!”. After the realisation, suddenly many memories flow back to my consciousness.
I call it “the shape of Brazilian CBT”. The circle is the way that usually the community greets its visitors.
And this is the message whispered in the air:
To be able to listen to what the community has to say to you [tourist], you should first open your heart, not just your ears.
So, please sharesomething about yourself or simply make yourself visible.
The instruction today is to do the first movement that instinctively arises in one’s mind and, for everyone else to copy along the exact movement that has just been shown.
Faces speak the unsaid thoughts.
“OMG, which movement I am gonna do now? I am no good at this”
“Which could be the right movement to perform in these occasions?”
“I have never done something like this before, I don’t know what to do?”
“What is this for?”
“I’m gonna look ridiculous, I know!”
But what it might feel terrifying at first, transforms very quickly in a liberating and connecting experience!
After the circle ritual has helped us to cross the community border, with a smile on our faces we are now officially ready to start the tour through Uruguai.
1st STOP: Luiza Mahin Community school.
In the building that used to house the Local Residents Association (named Conjunto Santa Luzia), lives the first community primary school. Established in 1990, the school is the living example of what sweat and dedication can achieve.
Named after Luiza Mahin -an African freed slave and important figure in the regional and national history of the antislavery movement- until early 2000, the independent school was the only source of formal primary education for the local children aged 6 to 12.
Nowadays, since the lack of primary education in the region has been filled, the Luiza Mahin has shifted its focus on pre-school education.
The school started with two empty rooms and over time -with a lot of collaborative efforts, and even items collected and brought in personally from the founders’ homes- became one of the strongest pillar of the community. When it was legally recognised, the school has already turned into a reference for the local residents.
The moment we crossed the gates of the school, I felt I have entered a secret space built between the lines of the official cultural history of the country.
Although it is strongly evident in the streets of Brazil, the Afro-descendant origins -which identifies half of the Brazilian population- is something that is not openly displayed, and definitely not in a school. However, in this school, you can breathe it directly from the walls.
Their cultural roots are shown and embodied, rather than simply accepted.
The walls reflect inspiring figures of the untold history of the country. African-descendant individuals here have their status raised to the one usually reserved to the President or the Head of the country.
They winkle out at you from the honorary frames they have been finally placed in.
The cosy library is full of pedagogical books on the many cultures and ethnic minorities that form Brazil. The educational approach between these walls comes directly from the teachings of Paulo Freire and Emília Ferreiro and their literacy methodology which has influenced the informal education so greatly, nationwide, since the 70s.
Something, in particular, is very obvious: the majority of the role models here, the cultural warriors displayed on the walls and on the shelves are women. This is not a coincidence. In fact, the racial questions are not the only ones worked through the pupils’ educational journey. The gender issue and the role of women in modern society are also questioned and thought through constantly.
2nd STOP: “Alagados” Cultural Centre
Next stop is the Alagados Cultural Centre (Espaço Cultural Alagados), whose name reflects the extent of its inclusiveness, which reaches all the sixteen communities of the region, and not only Uruguai, where is geographically located.
Hands resting on her hips, Jamíra Muniz’s maternal smile and leadership posture welcome us.
An intriguing fact about the cultural centre is that the building is a Bahia State government’s property that has now -for the second consecutive period- been under community management.
“It is a happy co-existence”, said Jamíra, and I can read on her fearless and peaceful expression the pride of being able, as a community, to maintain the space.
I believe that for an Afro-descendant community leader woman -or a black warrior woman like she is addressed by her friends and colleagues- to receive the governmental approval and recognition that they are doing a good job must feel like receiving a lifetime award directly by your beloved President (if you have one). Or maybe, for a black warrior woman, this is just the norm.
But I am sure that, thrown between the lines of her speech, I can also catch a sparkly glimpse in her eyes when she talks about the legal occupation of the government space, an action of such a symbolic power for a grassroots minority organization like theirs.
Jamira, who today manages the active Cultural Centre, is a veteran of the Uruguai collective achievement efforts. In fact, she is one of the founders of the Luiza Mahin school, and also a crucial figure in the creation of the REPROTAI network.
Alagados Cultural Centre flourishes with cultural activities: acting classes, hip-hop performances, capoeira training, among others. Most of them take place in the large theatre, furnished with a stage, benches, professional lighting and sound system. In the Centre, there is also a comic library for children and a recycling cooperative that creates art from the PET bottles, a form of upcycling, quite common in Brazil.
The last of the collective initiatives that was born under the shelter of the cultural centre is ADOCCI –Associação de Doceiras, Cozinheiras e Confeiteiros de Itapagipe (Cook, Bakers and Confectioners of Itapagipe Association), a women catering collective.
The cooperative, as well as offer all the services of a catering enterprise, has also recently started to offer cookery classes as part of the CBT experience.
3rd STOP: the Reprotai Youth Network
This was not a physical stop of our tour, but more a revelation.
The moment happens when the identity of young chaps of the football grounds was revealed. They are the representants of the local youth Network, REPROTAI.
They step on the main stage here, start talking to the group, feeling confident next to Jamíra and in their network’s official home.
This group of young artists, which meet weekly for their cultural movement and their diverse art activities, is before anything a very active group of young citizens, who discusses social and political issues, has a solid gender and racial equity agenda, as well as a social and human rights busy programme.
They were REPROTAI, the Network of the Protagonists in Action of the Itapagipe peninsula (REde de PROTagonistas em Ação de Itapagipe in Portuguese).
When we enter the dark space of the theatre, we notice people rehearsing on the note of hip-hop music. They smile and us, a bit embarrassed, when they stop their training to let our guide telling some stories of events that happened in this space, full of memories, of discussions and satisfactory sweating efforts.
The REPROTAI group has recently taken the full leadership of the CBT experiences and tours offered in their community.
They have reached this stage learning step by step from and with ComuniCulturi until they have become completely independent.
Others have been part of this journey, and, particularly on the tourism side, another important partner has been Tours Bahia, who has supported their work as well as other regional CBT projects.
4th STOP: the Casa da Juventude.
Casa da Juventude (Youth House) is a two floors apartment, which has been housing 16+ young people in need of accommodation safer than their own home. Due either to domestic violence or because they were struggling at home, many young adults have been sheltered here for a few months, or much longer, depending on the situation.
It is also here where the French group of the C’est Génial Comme Vacances -in partnership with Bonjour Bahia Turismo– stay during their annual 24-hours visit to the community, but that is another story.
5th STOP: the Uruguai Community Bank (2017)
Established in 2017, part of the Solidarity Economy movement, Santa Luzia Community Bank is the first of its kind to open in the city of Salvador. Nationally exist 103 community banks, established to strengthen the local economy.
Here we met Carlos Baby, who passionately tells us about the first year of the bank, and the growing Solidarity Rotative Fund (Fundo Rotativo Solidário) which represents a form of collective savings and which aims directly to support the local economy. This is a form of solidarity finance which provides access to loans to who would not usually gain the trust of the formal financial system.
We have been handed the Umoja, one of the 117 legally recognised Social currencies existing today in Brazil, apart from the national Real.
And it is on the actual currency that I discover for the first time how the old houses of Alagados looked like.
Located in a “flooded” area (Alagado in Portuguese means “flooded”), until ten years ago the houses here were built on stilts.
Interesting is the decision of showing on the new currency -rather than hiding- this embarrassing part of their past.
In the same way, I have seen the old history on the school walls, here I admire the displaying of pride in their identity. Touching.
Stop by stop, I have dug into the history of Uruguai, time travelling through the struggles and their achievements, and the sense of community and collective effort gets growing thicker and deeper before my eyes.
Because what at first I thought was a colourful puzzle of local experience,
actually turn to be a majestic millenarian tree, of which I have discovered only a few branches.
I have realised that the community built on a landfill, where once there were houses on stilts, is actually a very resilient community, built from the
strength, the courage and the love of some brave women, the founders of the community schools, the “Women of the Laje”*.
And this was just the beginning of the story, the first seed that, over
time, turn into that massive tree that is today able to reach, with its
branches, every corner of the community, or at least, have become sturdy enough to transform itself into a clear reference, for shelter both in a hot or rainy day.
Because when you spread some good seeds on good soil, the fruits come.
Some of the children that grow up in the community school, supported by the effort of the brave women are the educators of the community, today.
Most of the current school teachers, for example, have learnt to read and
write under the benevolent sight of the black heroine of Brazilian history,
between the same walls they teach today.
The leaders of the REPROTAI Network, and of its active citizens, were raised
there too. They are the local tour guides of the CBT initiatives. They are the
ones that show the tourists what means to be community members in Uruguai.
* * *
This is the power of CBT: it unveils powerful stories and plants them in the
tourists’ heart so that they can carry on flourishing. And once they have been
planted there, it does not really matter that they are still not on the
touristic map. Or does it?
COMMUNITY TOUR CONTACT INFORMATION
Paulo Freire and the Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
Changemaker School (Escolas Trasformadoras) program of which Luiza Mahin was awarded by Ashoka international.
The women of Adocci catering cooperative
Solidarity Economy, an example from Rio de Janeiro.
The Afro-descendant origins of Brazilian inhabitants
*Laje in English literally means “flagstone”, but the word gains a much deeper social meaning when used in the Brazilian informal housing settings.
The Laje, in fact, is the flat cemented roof and it represents the completion of the first storey of a house or building, which guarantees its very existence. It also brightens the future of the finalisation of the second floor.
It is important to notice that it is built collectively, through the so-called mutirão and the accomplishment is always celebrated with a big party in the community.
**Julia McNaught da Silva, ComuniCulturi CEO. Scottish by birth but adopted by Salvador many years ago, Julia has firstly been involved with CBT in 2007, with the NGO Estrella and the Estrela Community Tours CBT project supported by the Travel Foundation. Julia is a key figure of the CBT in Salvador and was the coordinator of our “Welcome tour” that and co-tour guide in Uruguai.
***A special thanks goes to Alberto Viana, a crucial figure in the CBT in the city Salvador and the State of Bahia.
Involved primarily in supporting the rural community-based tourism and in developing their mutual relations with the Solidarity Economy and Slow Food movement; he has also been a key person in the articulation of the urban CBT both in the Governmental sphere and in the Academy.
Alberto was among the few organizers and promoters of the Welcome Tour and the II Global Forum of Sustainable Tourism that happened in Salvador in 2018.