Community Health Educator's Update

Barb de Souza - Brazil

We have waited anxiously to be able to write and tell you that at last, after all this waiting; our renewal contract with the city health department had been signed. But our new year began with frustration when we were informed that it would not be signed until February.  We were doubtful for each month since the terminating of our last two year contract at the end of May, we had been promised a renewal contract for the following month. If you remember, in August, we enthusiastically went through a 3 week program to select our 3rd health team of 6 health educators, plus 2 to take the places of the 2 we promoted,  Maria Garcia and Lena, two nurse's assistants (they had recently received their diplomas) to this 3rd team, with Kelly (remember her story?) as the nurse. We even began to look for a doctor, dentist and her 2 assistants.

Barb de Souza - Brazil

We have waited anxiously to be able to write and tell you that at last, after all this waiting; our renewal contract with the city health department had been signed. But our new year began with frustration when we were informed that it would not be signed until February.  We were doubtful for each month since the terminating of our last two year contract at the end of May, we had been promised a renewal contract for the following month. If you remember, in August, we enthusiastically went through a 3 week program to select our 3rd health team of 6 health educators, plus 2 to take the places of the 2 we promoted,  Maria Garcia and Lena, two nurse's assistants (they had recently received their diplomas) to this 3rd team, with Kelly (remember her story?) as the nurse. We even began to look for a doctor, dentist and her 2 assistants.

So we waited, doubting that this promise would be honored, but we constantly pressured the health authorities of the Family Health Program.  FINALLY, on Monday, the 5th of February, it was signed for another two years.  And to add to our joy, our mission partner, Sue Christopher, was with us to witness this long awaited day. We were so thrilled with her visit and certainly she deserved to see how we have grown. The last time she came to visit us was before the floods of 1996, when we were still giving the Health Educator's Training Course in this shantytown. Since then we have grown to a 3 building, highly recognized family health program, and she has been a vital part of our mission work, its growth and outreach.

Oh, did we celebrate! And now our buildings are full of new and enthusiastic health workers, uniformed and eager to learn their tasks. We hired a new doctor, dentist and one of her assistants. It was also necessary to hire a third maintenance woman due to the size of our clinic with a third building now fully used.  There are, of course, some problems (I say constantly, if I could just have but one week without a problem, I would be in heaven). The dental equipment came, and when I called to have it removed from the boxes and put in place, I was told that this material was not ours but for another health clinic. Our equipment is many miles from here. No matter how I rationalized with the city dental health personnel, that it would be much cheaper and more efficient to let us use what we have, and let the other material be used where it is, I was told that this is not possible because different areas of the city dental department purchased the material. Unbelievable bureaucracy! So we must wait to begin this much needed program. We are certainly good at that!!!!

However, the new dental team will have much to learn of the area and its needs.  The family health program's dental team does not work just in the office, but must spend half of the 40 hour work week visiting families, talking to them about dental care and nutrition as well as giving talks in our family planning program, and pregnant women's, infant's and children's weekly groups.  They will also participate in our new educational programs: creative art and professional training for adolescents. Good audiences for dental health education!

We were also told that due to financial problems, only the dental chair, compressor and some material for dental use will be supplied by the city, the rest our Association will have to purchase.  We know the real reason for that is the Pan American Olympics that will be held here in July of this year.  As I mentioned in my last newsletter, monies have been diverted from many programs to pay for the renovating of athletic areas, the construction of new buildings, apartments for tourists, etc.  The public health system of Rio de Janeiro is even more chaotic than before due to this Olympic financial drain. The hospitals and public health centers lack necessary material for surgery, beds, anesthesia and medication. The new Governor of Rio, himself, was shocked when, soon after taking office, he went to visit some of the hospitals. Our clinic also has not received medicines now for 4 months.

Now, speaking of the Pan American Olympics, I want to share with you another consequence of this event.  In spite of our joy at having our contract renewed and our new health workers beginning, a real sadness and concern has taken over our lives due to this athletic event. Newspaper headlines on the 16th of February:

"THREAT OF THE REMOVAL OF HOMES OF DWELLERS NEAR THE NEWLY CONSTRUCTED PAN AMERICAN OLYMPICS VILA AFFECTS THE SHANTYTOWN OF CANAL DO ANIL "

The dwellers of the shantytown of Canal do Anil, now neighbors of the Pan American Vila; have conquered sufficient obstacles to earn medals. And we at the family health clinic are witnesses to this.  We struggle with them to improve their lives and health as they survive the poor infrastructure of the area, such as lack of sewers, asphalted roads and health. However, as this community is near the apartment buildings that will house the athletes during the Olympics, 542 families are threatened with immediate removal. Shantytowns are eyesores, a proof of the social/economic injustice that the city wants to hide.  No one, however, was informed officially that there would be an expulsion of these families. The dwellers, as well as our health workers, were surprised, when in January, city employees, representing the department of Habitation, arrived in a bus and began marking numbers on these houses with blue paint and taking pictures in and out of these homes. They forced the persons at home to fill out forms and sign them with threats that if they didn't they would be penalized. 

As one dweller, a local fisherman, age 38, who has lived in this community for 32 years said: "They came here, didn't speak with the community leader, the President of the Association of the Dwellers of the Community, as they should have when it concerns a whole community, didn't tell us anything, just invaded our houses without permission."  This frightened dweller told the person who entered his home where he, his wife and 3 children live, that his children go to school near by and his wife works in a neighboring shopping area, and they need to live in this area. At no time did these city employees say why they were marking numbers on these homes.

The community reacted as did our Family Health Program employees, our Association of Community Health Educators, and community churches. Sue was also here for the big community meeting outside the office of the Association of Community Dwellers next to our clinic. She was able to see and photograph the people's anxious faces as well as the many speakers who came to support the community in their fight to prevent this removal - Priests, Pastors, the leader of the State Human Rights Department, a retired Judge, representatives of many NGOs in resistance to arbitrary removal of shantytown dwellers, a group of lawyers, members of the workers pastoral of the Catholic Church, and members of the Federation of Shanty Town dwellers in favor of the urbanization of shantytowns.

They informed the people that there are laws, principally #429, to protect them from this kind of action. These laws include, informing leaders of the community of the proposed action, participation of the community in discussion of alternative plans, such as the purchase of land no further than 10 kilometers from the present area and reimbursement or the constructions of other homes for these families. None of the above was obeyed. To the contrary, these homes were invaded without warning. And there is no way the rest of what is required by law can be done in the 4 months before the Olympics. When our social worker, Ana Lucia, tried to speak with the person in charge of the house marking, a social worker like herself, she was told this was none of her business. When we objected to this action, we were threatened.

So we are once more challenged to the call of Christ to defend the poor and disenfranchised, our brothers and sisters. With the help of these lawyers and the other groups, the community has begun a legal action against the City (the Mayor) for disobedience of the law #429 as well as the way in which these representatives of the city government acted when they came to mark these houses, homes of people, many of whom have lived here for 40 years or more. Yesterday, I received a fax with the notification from a judge condemning any removal action during Carnival, (one of the highlighted festivities of the Brasilian people) which begins today and lasts till Ash Wednesday. So we are safe for a while, but the fight is just beginning.

It is difficult for me, as an American, to believe that a Mayor and his employees can break their own laws. Am I naïve? In a Christian country, how can such things occur?  I end this newsletter with the joy of finally being able to tell you that our contract was renewed and our new health team is in action, but asking you to pray for our community and these 542 families whose human rights are being threatened. It is not just their homes they might lose but a whole social structure, their daily lives.

God bless you all and thank you for your faithfulness to us. We continue to be your hands in mission,

Barb and Gus de Souza

P.S Our training program for Community Health Educators continues with 9 groups going on at the present time. Our Physical Therapy program, the only one of its kind in the area, grows to the point where we are having to turn patients away for lack of enough physical therapists. We are still pressuring the city Rehabilitation Department to give us financial support so we can have 2 therapists for the 40 hour work week. Our project was praised but the city claims this program was not budgeted for 2007 (another challenge to be met!)

Barb de Souza is a volunteer with the Institute of Religious Studies (ISER)She serves as an advisor for popular education and training in the areas of health and sexuality.