From Peace Corps Wiki
Despite the wonderful memories of my years in NE Brazil between 1968 and 1971, my introduction to the country was not all roses. Students around the world (including me) were protesting American imperialism and the war in Viet Nam. I had no intention of going to SE Asia to kill people, figuring there must be a saner way to serve my country. Luckily, I was accepted by the Peace Corps shortly after graduating from college. After six weeks of language training in Brattleboro, my group was off to Brazil. Police were attacking protestors at the infamous Democratic presidential convention in Chicago literally as two dozen other trainees and I headed south. Five other guys and I were to take six weeks of training in rural cooperative organizing and horticulture way out in the interior.
The 15-hour bus ride to our training site in the Northeastern Brazilian state of Paraiba was not smooth in any way. While a new highway was being built between the "sertao" "(hinterland) town of Cajazeiras and the coastal capital of Joao Pessoa, the detours were narrow, winding gravel roads. The bus was old and underpowered and seemed to have no springs left as it clattered over washboard roads and potholes. But that didn't deter the driver from attempting to pass an equally decrepit bus from a competing bus company. Even at full throttle, our rattletrap could not overtake the other, but our driver's honor was obviously on the line. For several miles, the two buses roared neck and neck through the dark, up and down hills, around curves obscured by brush, a roaring wall of pug-nosed buses filling the entire road.
Bob Filliman, riding beside me, kept fingering his rosary beads and saying, "Oh my God, we're all gonna die! We're all gonna die." His prayers seemed to work as we didn't meet any oncoming cars during the race.
Impressed by the jaunty image of rebel leader Che Gueverra while still in college, I was naively sporting a black beret and short dark beard. Little did I know that Brazilians had been thoroughly indoctrinated to fear and loathe the so-called "Fidelistas," thanks to an American-sponsored propaganda blitz with posters everywhere showing Russian Army tanks rolling into Prague, and dire warnings about "Communismo." Suddenly, I found myself in a stark police station being questioned under a bare light bulb. Bob, my bus-mate, was hauled in as well. Our Portuguese had not yet jelled and our passports had gone ahead with our luggage in a Peace Corps Jeep. Just as the police were preparing to lock us up for the night, our American PC training coordinator Hank Atha, clearly shaken, found us. He explained the situation and promised to bring our passports in the morning, so we went on unscathed but a little wiser, perhaps. As I was getting settled into my little town of Sao Jose de Piranhas, I learned that Brazil was in an upheavel and that the president had suspended the Constitution, so we were in a period of censorship. People were afraid to say anything about their government, especially to an Americano.
After moving in with a family consisting of a hard-working widow--Dona Benvinda--and several equally hard-working children four miles outside of Sao Jose de Piranhas, I felt pretty well insulated from the happenings in the capitol or anywhere else beyond the horizon. I quickly realized how lucky I was to experience life with a houseful of Portuguese tutors, and learn about Brazil from its rural roots. After three months at my site, I recruited a great partner to share the work, since there had been a male-female team there previously and people kept asking why I didn't have a partner. Mavis Pitter (Knight) turned out to be a rough-and-ready redhead from rural Northern California who arrived with six "sack dresses" (like flour sacks of muted colors with holes cut for arms) and rode her horse bareback and fast. We made a great team. She was up for anything any time, and I was available to get her out of trouble and smooth things over. Brazilian men had never encountered a woman of her unabashed spunk. The other folks serving in Paraiba were great people. My group, passing ourselves as pseudo ag extension agents, included Rick "Farm" Jacobs, John Fanning, Bob Filliman, and Pete, whose last name I can't recall. There were other groups that had arrived before and some came after ours, including a rural electrification group that sat around for more than a year waiting for their program to get underway. To help pass the time while waiting for their host countrymen to get ready to use their services, an expert bridge player named Bertie Nelson Butts III taught the others in his group to play bridge. Other than Mavis and Robin Burn, who had come to work in a health post, about the only other volunteers from the NE of Brazil I encountered with any frequency was when I would travel to the regional headquarters in Recife about every six weeks.
I chose to work in the countryside outside of my small town with families living around a large water reservoir built around 1930 to help irrigate the arid ground below it. The dam was called "Buquerao" and blocked the Rio das Piranhas (River of the Piranhas) which did, in fact, have plenty of the vicious little beasts. Each family had a lifetime lease on 10 hectares of government-owned land along the river and around the upper part of the dam. I figured these folks--with a stable piece of land to work--would have a better chance of making use of some farming ideas better than people who were perennially impoverished and exploited sharecroppers. And I was not interested in working with the wealthy landowners, who seemed for the most part content to sit on their verandas and invest in things other than improving their farms.
Once I got rolling, I took on several ambitious projects. The largest was organizing a cooperative, which we called and association, where the neighboring subsistence farmers could share planting tips, seed, and tools. It helped immensely that I was living in the community and with Dona Benvinda, who was the matriarch of a large family. There was not much trust between or among people outside the immediate clan, so Benvinda's extended family formed the core of the membership. With the help of a USAID grant, I bought two water pumps for the association to pump out of the reservoir and irrigate rice along the shores. I mounted the larger, diesel powered pump on a trailer made from the rear end of a Model A Ford, and pulled by a mule. The smaller gas powered pump fit neatly on the wooden rack used on the backs of donkeys. I persuaded about eight or ten farmers to build water tanks (cisternas) out of brick and mortar, which would be filled on a regular basis as the pumps made their rounds. While I was doing the coop thing, Mavis set up a demonstration garden with Dona Amelia, one of Dona Benvinda's older married daughters, growing truck crops such as tomatoes and onions, which could be sold at the weekly market in town for cash. Mavis was an expert in growing tomatoes, having been schooled at UC Davis in N. Calif, a mecca for tomatoes and other crops.
With the association farmers I did some field testing using a method I had seen on farms in Oregon where I grew up. The participating farmer would measure a 10 x 10 meter plot to be used as a control (using the same methods and seeds they always used). Beside it, they would stake out a 10 x 10 meter plot in which they would plant a new variety of rice, beans or corn, or different plant spacing, or fertilizers. At harvest time they could easily compare the productivity of the two plots. I like to think that this scientific approach may have been the most useful thing I taught anyone in Brazil.
I set up a mini pig farm on Dona Benvinda's property to show the advantages of raising pigs in confinement using some animal husbandry techniques rather than letting them roam, scavenge and mate with their siblings and parents. The new brick and concrete pig house, pool for cooling off and surrounding fence (brick wall) were nicer than the house we were living in, a fact which the neighbors liked to point out with a smirk!
Along the banks of the river on Dona Benvinda's place I witched a water well and hired some local workers to dig it by hand. We soon ran into solid granite. Not to let that stop me, I traveled to Cajazeiras 30 km away and tracked down some old dynamite--the kind with fuses you light with a match. I was pretty amazed that I was able to buy explosives at a time when the government had the country under martial law to protect it for the "terroristas!" This was one of the many benefits of living far from the larger cities! After some harrowing incidents in which the fuse went out after disappearing over the rim of the well, we finally hit water at about 20 feet. Not a lot of water, but enough to show that despite the arid climate, there is water beneath the surface if you can find it. I cadged a windmill for the well, but never set it up. Several things changed in my life after my vacation, which I took after two full years. Mavis married a Brazilian and moved away. I fell in love with a Peace Corps Volunteer in Cajazeiras. The association had come to a screeching halt while I was away and most of the people except Dona Benvinda thought I wouldn't return. They were surprised when I did and slightly embarrassed that they had let things fall apart so quickly. I stuck around long enough to bring other projects to closure, and moved to Recife with Robin. We rented an apartment on the tenth floor of an apartment house in Recife while I worked in a PC training program where I was to show city kids who were heading for a rural coop program which end of the carrot went in the ground, etc.
Since leaving Brazil in 1971 and a stint in Oregon (my home state) and Northern California, I've had a career in Seattle since 1977. I've worked mostly in nonprofit organizations and at the University of Washington, in public relations and fundraising. I have two sturdy grown sons and a wonderful wife of 25 years, Heather Marks. Heather, who never served in the Peace Corps, recently got her Masters in Social Work. We live in Edmonds, Washington, and are saving up for a visit to Brazil before we're too old to travel. Mavis now lives in western Montana where she was designing and building gorgeous, rustic homes the last time I checked. Dona Benvinda, my surrogate mother, passed away about four years ago. I still correspond with one of her daughters, Francisquinha, in Sao Jose de Piranhas. Francisquinha is my last link in Brazil to a magical time when I lived in a red brick house in the parched sertao of Brazil with a beautiful family.
I'd love to hear from others who love Brazil and/or who want to speak some Brazilian Portuguese, maybe "bater papo" over a caipirinha and bowl of black bean feijoada. We'll go easy on the cachaca, though. -- Cliff
March 13, 2008