The Story of Marinalva

The Story of Marinalva

I hear her singing those old country folk songs from the northeast of Brasil, or whistling through the corridor near the pharmacy where I work. She smiles as she goes by, broom and dust rag in hand, “Need anything Dona Baba”, she says smiling as she passes me. This happy, good-humored woman is Marinalva, one of 3 cleaning women in our clinic.

I  hear her singing those old country folk songs from the northeast of Brasil, or whistling through the corridor near the pharmacy where I work. She smiles as she goes by, broom and dust rag in hand, “Need anything Dona Baba”, she says smiling as she passes me.  This happy, good-humored woman is Marinalva, one of 3 cleaning women in our clinic.

Marinalva is responsible for the building where the pharmacy is.  She has been with us for a little more than a year, beginning when the 3rd building was completed. Her good disposition and readiness to do more than is required do not seem possible when one knows the difficulty with which she lives and her past life. Marinalva is an example for me and for many. For this reason, I have chosen to write about her in this newsletter as an example of how knowledge creates self-esteem and what this can mean in the life of a financially poor woman.

She was born 34 years ago in the northeast of Brasil into an extremely poor rural family. She had no childhood, for she began to work at age 10, cleaning houses for city folk. She was always eager to learn, so in spite of her hard life, she kept at her schooling in a rural, poorly equipped school.  She married early at 19 and soon became pregnant. Life became even more difficult for she lived in one small rural city, worked in another and attended the only school in another. As the birth of her first child approached, this life became too much for her, and 3 months before her last year in grammar school, she had to quit.

When her oldest child was 4 and her second just 2, the family immigrated to Rio de Janeiro, to the shantytown where we are today because she had 2 brothers who had, like her, left the impoverished northeast of Brasil hoping to find better lives. Marinalva’s husband’s work experience was as a waiter and he soon found a job. In the next few years, 2 more children were born and life became so difficult that they decided to return to the northeast and their old city. This type of immigration is common in Brasil, back and forth from the poor areas of the northeast to the big cities always in search of job opportunities which are not available in the poor Northeast.

However, as with so many others, they soon discovered that life in their city of origin was even more difficult than they remembered. No schools near by, no public health centers and so in less than a few months, they all returned to Rio.  The financial situation was difficult and Marinalva had to go to work again leaving the children alone when the father was not there. Between the two of them, they biked their children to school, cooked, and clothed them. Marinalva worked as a cleaning woman as well as being employed in factories before she came to us.

She had been with us for about 6 months, when her husband became very ill and lost his job as a waiter. Things became even more difficult for Marinalva but her disposition didn’t change.  One day I was told that one of her 4 children had passed out in school for lack of enough to eat. I went, then, for the first time to where she lived in the shanty-town, and what I saw shocked me. Her “house,” for lack of another name, consisted of one small room with bunk beds where she, her husband and 4 children slept and lived their family social life. In the corridor in front of the door to this room, were her “kitchen”, stove and a small table with a dishpan on it. Water came from a faucet and a bathroom shared by the other families living in the building. They paid rent of about 1/3 of their combined salaries. Her husband, still feverish, was lying on the bottom bunk.  I thought to myself, how could we allow one of our employees to live like this and not do something to help in such a difficult situation?

With help from our faithful donators and her co-workers, we were able to see her through these difficulties until her husband recovered and found a new job.  She never stopped working cheerfully in the clinic and her gratitude was showed in many ways. For some time, she had been a student of our Community Health Educator Training Course for she had become so interested in health while working as a cleaning woman; she wanted to learn more to better serve her family and community through this health knowledge. On Saturday, the 27th of October, I went to her graduation from the Health Educators Training Course. As one of the outstanding students of the group, she was chosen to read the dedication and the community health educators’ final vows. And we had a very special award for her. She was to be hired as one of our community health educators in the Family Health Program. Marinalva had received a promotion that of which she had never dreamed possible!

But now I must add that it was not as easy for me to obtain this deserved promotion for her because of bureaucracy and prejudice.

To be a community health educator in the city’s Family Health Program, for which our Association is contracted to administer, all sorts of rule changes have been made over the years. From a program started in 1999 in which the community health workers had only to live in the community, and to know how to read and write sufficiently, the city health dept. has made new rules that almost caused us to have to fire some of the women who had been with us from the beginning. The new rules are that all these health workers have to have grammar school diploma.  Now this may surprise you, but in the rural area, women were never encouraged to go to school for they were to be wives and mothers only. Even in some cities, there are not enough schools; in some rural areas, children ride boats, walk or bike miles to get to a one-room school house.  In the larger cities like Rio where the poor immigrants come to get better jobs, there are more schools but jobs, transportation limitations and family obligations left to the woman, make studying too difficult for them, especially if they are not of normal school age.

When this rule was imposed on us at the signing of the 3rd renewal contract with the city Health Dept. a few years ago, I was stunned–what to do? I wrote a letter to the Health Dept., explaining how we began and that I agreed this schooling was necessary, but an opportunity must be given to these women for I could not in good conscience fire them for together we had created this Association. I guaranteed that by the next contract all of our health workers would have a grammar school diploma. The contract was signed and then the struggle began to find a night school for these women. At the time only 4 of our 12 health workers had a full grammar school education. We could not find one, so with your donations, we helped these women pay the tuition for a private night school and, as I promised, all of them got their diploma.  We now require this diploma for any new health educator, such as those hired in our new 3rd team.

Now we come back to Marinalva. When I knew that one of our health workers was unable to continue due to health problems, I thought immediately of Marinalva as I knew she was a student of our Health Educators Course and was outstanding. So I asked her if she would like this promotion. Of course, she was excited for it is a move up and as it has been proven over the years, this not only increases self-esteem but also is motivation to go further on in education. The other workers were thrilled, too.

But when I asked for the documents necessary, which included a grammar school diploma, a problem arose that I had not counted on. Marinalva did not have this diploma as already explained.  So to hire her caused all sorts of objections from the city health supervisors. A member of our Board, too, felt since the other health workers had this diploma, she should, too. Another wondered if a cleaning woman could become a health worker; it was a class situation.  I was shocked, even shed a few tears at this attitude for it has always been part of our work here to raise self-esteem and give opportunities. We took her school papers to a local private night school and were told that she could take a test and if she passed, she could automatically get her diploma but then must continue on to high school there. She took the test and passed but will not get her diploma till after she completes her first year of high school.

Once again came the objections, this time from our social worker who felt she should go through the same selective process as our newest group; that perhaps she would not pass the interviews and written tests. She did!!!!!!!!!!!!! With flying colors, even though a member of our board of directors, a social worker, who did one of the interviews, felt that we should hire someone who did not already work in the clinic to avoid criticism of favoritism. I balked for promotion is motivation and 4 of our nurses’ assistants, after the required studies, had been promoted from health agents to Nursing Assistants. 

So it was not easy to overcome the red tape and the prejudice, but according to our Association’s rules, the final decision as to the employing of staff is the President’s, thus I could hire her. Once more we have proved the value of education, even a simple health educators course whose objectives to empower, can do so and change lives.

On the 5th of November when she arrived in the health educator’s uniform, her smile was one of victory. And though she is no longer where I can hear her singing or whistling, she is out in the community visiting her patients, in a health study group or doing her patient paper work, and singing her victory! See her proud smile in the picture below.

Thank you all for your participation for Marinalva’s victory as well as others for they are yours, too, due to your faithful concern and support of our health ministry. All of the employees of the clinic, Gus and I, and our Association’s Board of Directors wish you a joyous holiday season. We pray with you, for a new year of peace and justice in the world.

Barb and Gus de Souza

P.S. Now another victory for all of us! On the 12th of Nov. the official newspaper of the city of Rio de Janeiro published a contract with our Association of Community Educators for our physical therapy program now to be a rehabilitation center. After 8 years with your help to keep this program going, the need for our work has been recognized!

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.