Back to Brazil “A success story”
In 1965, I said goodbye to Brazil, after two years of working with the Compania National da Merenda Escolar, the National School Lunch Program in the State of Espirito Santo. It had been an exciting and productive two years. Our project was a partnership between the National School Lunch program, the state, local government and the Peace Corps. Our mission had been to help communities to start school lunch programs. Since food supplies from the government were limited a community support system was organized, children brought vegetables from home to contribute to the lunch and garden clubs had been started to help supply some of the need food. Some real kitchens had been built, but some small one-room schools improvised; a five-liter can and four rocks served as a stove. Lunch was being served.
For several years there was an exchange of letters with Brazilian friends, but the letters slowly dwindles as people moved, married or just lost contact. Yet there was always a nagging desire to know what happened to the fledgling lunch programs, the towns, the people and Brazil that had been such a big part of my life for two years.
In April of 1999, I returned to Brazil, to visit the muncipios (counties) where I had worked and to see if there was any trace of the work done by the Voluntarios da Paz ( as the Peace Corps was known in Brazil) A chance meeting on the Internet with a Brazilian journalist, Monica Monat, led to the decisions to make this long delayed trip. Many of her family lived in Espirto Santo and she offered to help me locate some long lost friends and to help make travel arrangements. Her cousin, Pedro de Faria Burnier, had been the agronomist in Castelo, when I had worked. Now he is the Secretary of Agriculture for the state of Espirito Santo, and when she asked him if he remember the Peace Corps, he remembered the Peace Corps fondly and invited me to visit.
Thirty-five years before there had been 32 members of Brazil VII, fresh training, on the plane. This time I was alone, but the view of Brazil from the air was familiar: The lush green of the Atlantic Rainforest, broken by patches of rusty red soil, Corcovado with its statue standing guard over Rio, and the beautiful bay. From the air it seemed not much had changed, but this thought quickly vanished when I landed at Rio de Janeiro’s ultra-modern new airport. Planes from all over the world lined the tarmac, hundreds of people were all rushing to make it through customs or make a last minute purchase at the immense duty free store.
Everywhere I went there was both the new and remembered., but there was still an energy and a pulse that is that is purely Brazilian. Driving from Rio to Espirito Santo, the farmhouses hadn’t changed, but now sprouted satellite dishes and cell phones were everywhere. This was in contrast to the single line shared by three towns that had been our only link to the outside world in 1964. Towns and cities had grown, and the nearly impassable roads were now well-maintained highways. I wondered what I would find in Castelo and Santa Maria de Jetiba’, two of my service sites.
My first view of Castelo was with Pedro. The ranch where he invited me to stay was just north of there, near Domingos Martins. On the Sunday I arrived, we all piled into his van for a tour of the area. He described how modern farming methods were producing excellent vegetable, fruit and strawberry crops that were trucked to the major cities. As we drove through the beautiful mountains, we passed the tidy farms and well tended gardens. When we arrive in Castelo, which a grown five fold, the most remarkable sight was a Castle standing on the main square. When I returned the next day, I learned that it was a Peace Corps assisted project that had matured. In 1965, local people had started a library in the city hall. The 200 or so books, donated from our private collection and the Peace Corps provided a book locker, were a sizable portion of the original stock. The castle was a large public library. I was happy to fulfill the librarian’s request to sign the quest book and to compliment her on their achievement.
I next traveled to Santa Maria de Jetiba’. The small village, set in the coastal mountains, had grown into a bustling city. A banner at the edge of town proclaimed it to be the “Most German Town “ in Brazil and but for the tropical climate and vegetation the town looked like it could be in Germany. I went to the city hall to see what I could find out about the current status of the lunch program. There I met Luiza Sossai Berger, the county Secretary of Education. She proudly told me that not only were not only serving lunch but breakfast as well and that they had recently received national recognition for the quality of their merenda program. She invited me to visit a school with her to see the program in operation.
The school had changed. A regional school with classes for each grade had replaced the one-room one teacher multi-grade schools. Each morning, bright yellow school busses- like busy bees- swarmed across the countryside to collect the students. But the basic lunch program was unchanged. Senhora Berger explained that the funds they received were insufficient to support the program. That the contributions of the community, farmers, merchants, students and their families along with a school garden made it all possible. I was introduced to the school principal. We then visited all of the classrooms, where I was received as an honored guest. Senhora Berger told the children about the Peace Corps and how I had been one of the volunteers who had come to their town to help start the lunch program. I answered questions in each class, having to apologize for my bad Portuguese. Next, we visited the kitchen. It was modern and three cooks were preparing lunch. Then the shuffle of feet and happy voice could be heard as the children passed through the line to receive their lunch.
On the way back to city hall, I recounted to the Secretary how when the program started that many parents had told me that they kept their children in school because of the lunch program. She said that was still true today. It was so gratifying to find that the program begun so many years ago and nurtured by so many Peace Corps Volunteers was continuing to grow under the leadership of dedicated Brazilians. It was still there and achieving its goals of healthier and better educated children.
Needless to say it was a trip I will never forget. It was a trip into the past and a look at the future. Old memories were reinforced and new experiences savored. I was able to renew old friendships and make new ones as well. The Brazilians were so kind and generous and welcomed me wherever I went. For me it was a confirmation of that the Peace Corps is a viable and effective way to promote understanding and for people to work to together for a better future.