Brazil is a nation bursting with vibrancy, diversity, rich multiculturalism and ethnic heritage, music, dance, history, colour and breathtaking landscapes. Upon our recent visit to this awe-inspiring country, we as young leaders were exposed to an incredible amount of firsthand experiences that allowed us a deep insight into the cultural essence of Brazil. We did this through the exploration of both historical and modern sites, and by gaining a greater understanding of contemporary social and political issues facing Brazil through participation in briefings and active engagement with NGOs, corporates and government organisations. But as we wandered the beautiful streets of this remarkable nation, one particular issue of institutionalised racial discrimination and social stratification experienced by particular societal members of Brazil became increasingly noticeable to me.
To me, the first city we visited and Brazil’s first capital, Salvador, was by far the richest in social and cultural history. Immersing ourselves in the neighbourhood of Rio Vermelho in southern Salvador and Pelourinho in Salvador’s historical downtown showed us firsthand the blending of European, African and Amerindian cultures – with the contrast between the historical, slightly run-down buildings and lively, bustling shopkeepers and citizens, being truly indicative of the city’s diversity. In particular, Pelourinho (the Portuguese name for the historical downtown which is UNESCO Heritage Listed) highlighted the strong presence of Afro-Brazilian culture – and it was here that I began to notice signs of discrimination and prejudice emerging after we passed patrolling police strip-searching two Afro-Brazilian youth on the basis of “suspicion” – an early sign for us of the concerning presence of stigmatisation towards this cultural group.
Music, dance and art emerged as key components of Brazilian culture – with the African influence being particularly evident both in Salvador and the Cantagalo Favela (best translated into “slum”) that we visited in Rio de Janeiro. The Afro-Brazilian Museum we visited in Salvador emphasised the importance of artwork as an expression and dissemination of the religion, beliefs and customs of Afro-Brazilian culture.
Compounding this was our wonderful visit to a drumming workshop with the Olodum music school and organisation in Pelourinho, which focuses on combatting racial discrimination and encouraging self-esteem and pride in Afro-Brazilian youth. These cultural experiences placed great emphasis on the strong sense of community and belonging established by the Afro-Brazilian society in Salvador, with their richness and strength showing great resistance to white oppression throughout history.
Concerning issues of subtly institutionalised racial inequality has resulted in poverty, inadequate housing and inequitable access to education and pose major obstacles to Brazil’s progress and wellbeing, and this was really highlighted when we visited the NGO Desabafo Social based in Salvador.
Monique Evelle is a 21-year old inspiration – as founder of the NGO Desabafo Social, she actively engages with youth in her Afro-Brazilian community to raise social awareness and promote a culture of human rights by stimulating their involvement in social causes. To date, she has personally ensured the success of 23 Afro-Brazilian students in securing a place at university – an articulation which is usually resisted by racial discrimination and the presumption that, as our tour guide Robert Merces put it, “blacks are only good for labour”.
As a victim of racial discrimination herself, Monique epitomises the strength and perseverance required to fight for justice and equality, and she shared her work and the realities of the social climate of her city with our group – work that has earned the title of being one of the 25 most influential Black women in Brazil.
After experiencing what I will always consider to be one of my most beautiful, engaging, enriching and eye-opening life experiences and lessons yet, I feel I can make a personal judgment about the people, culture and diversity of Brazil. As a multicultural nation characterised by such rich customs, traditions and practices, it can definitely be said that diversity is one of Brazil’s strengths. However, upon a deeper consideration of the level of inequality between different ethnic groups – in particular the marginalisation of the Afro-Brazilian community, you can appreciate the social issues and violations of human rights that exist in this nation. Its diversity is its strength, and yet it is its greatest challenge.
The 2015 GLP Brazil Symposium has educated, enlightened and inspired me with such depth and beauty – and as a young, first-year student, it has allowed me to discover my passion for human rights. So, fellow GLPers, I urge you to remember why you are a young leader and what motivates you to create positive change. There is an entire world out there awaiting enthusiastic, driven and passionate students like us to experience and gain knowledge of such issues and initiate change. We are, after all, the future. Brazil undoubtedly changed my life for the better. Let it change yours.
Shelby Sewak is a first year B Psychology (Hons)/ B Laws student and begun her GLP at the start of 2015. She was selected through a competitive application process to be a delegate on the GLP’s International Symposium trip to Brazil in September, 2015. This Brazil Symposium is part of an ongoing GLP series and trips are advertised via email and social media generally 4-6 months before the trip is scheduled to run. You can also read blogs from previous trips including Madi Curby’s ‘Brazil: a Country of Blinding Contrasts’ or Sonika Kalra’s, ‘Rio 2016: Opportunity or Opportunistic?’.