A lady held back from the others lined up at Jardim Colonia. They were chatting while waiting patiently to collect milk, food and clothing from the truck. It was not that others were crushing in to get their share that held her back. Nor was it the Sao Paulo city police car that was parked about a half-block away with two officers in it. They watched carefully all that was happening and I found out nothing more when I went to chat with them. Not even a pleasant greeting of “boa tarde.” Since Brazilians no matter who, are always courteous I wondered who they were watching and why. Was it the woman I had in mind or just the fact of food and clothing being given away in one of Sao Paulo’s poorest slums.
I got an answer to my question from the local lady who was overseeing the distribution, “This woman you’re asking about? She not only faces poverty but she has three small children. ‘A sua vida e dura.’ Her life is hard, very hard.”
I approached her as she stood with her three small children holding tightly to her skirt. Now each had a hand on the bags that had just been given her.
I suppose she was in her late twenties but she looked so much older. Her hair was straight and long, and with her high cheek bones I guessed she was from the local tribe of Indians. Her dress was more tidy and clean than one might expect in her situation. She was stocky of build but what really caught my eye was her sadness.
One of the leaders from the area explained, “As the city expanded, most of her tribe has been pushed out and their land taken over by squatters. That’s the way it is in the big cities. Not even government or private or Indians lands can be protected from the squatters. Better to say impossible.”
I approached her as she stood by herself, waiting as if she needed to be there a bit longer. The story she told sticks with me still and I can see her so clearly there by herself preparing to go home—wherever and to whatever that might be.
She began with the part of the story that was, I quickly came to believe, behind her sad eyes and face. “My husband couldn’t find work here. So he told me he had decided to go down to the port city of Santos. He said there would be work there. He promised to send money to support me and my children.”
I asked, “And has he been helping out? With money I mean?”
“No money ever came. Not a centavo even after three years.”
She said, “Ele me abandonou. He abandoned me. He left me with three children to care for. Perhaps starve.”
I later inquired and found that this situation is quite common among the poor in Brazil. A man with children will find a younger woman with no dependents and that woman is often ready to hook up with him. There is a good chance of getting some money. The older woman with children is forgotten.
It was during three years that she was dependent only on handouts. There must have been some tough times. She said to me, “I’m going to share my food with a neighbour lady . She’s got children but has no food in the house. I’ll divide up what I’ve got. It’s important to keep that house, those children from going hungry.”
What I heard seemed unbelievable–a hungry family sharing with another family that is also hungry. She would understand clearly that for perhaps a week or two away she’d be hungry too. The way I see it is that those who suffer with the pangs of hunger understand the best of anyone, the hunger pain of their neighbours.
I left this woman and Jardim Colonia wishing we might all remember her example. I know I for one could do better in sharing what I have.