What inspired you to volunteer with IVHQ in Brazil?
Nicole: Living in such a multicultural city as London I meet many people from different backgrounds. I found myself coming more and more in contact with Brazilians and listened to stories of their culture, the joy and the challenges. I found myself learning Portuguese, Samba and researching the wonderful country that is Brazil.
I knew that I wanted to volunteer overseas and be involved in a culture which was different to my own to learn something new and to give back. And the more I researched, the more I was moved and touched by the resilience of the people in some areas, the diversity, the history and indeed the favelas.
When I found out where the word favela comes from and what it stands for– that was it! (Note everyone: the name "favela" comes from a species of plant which is particularly resilient).
IVHQ – well I researched many organizations and went to a Capoeira event in London, got talking to a person there and she mentioned that she was going to be doing voluntary work in Rio. She mentioned the organization she was going to volunteer with. I remembered it – went home that night, logged on and applied!.
When I got to the house I was staying in – in Rio – she answered the door! She had become the house manager and had decided to stay longer. Both our jaws dropped. We couldn’t believe it. We had only spoken for 10 minutes when we first met in London! Amazing!
Describe your day to day activities as a volunteer.
Nicole: I was working in the ‘Building Homes in Favelas’ project. Basically this means building a home for a family which has been living in inadequate conditions – to put it mildly. A small group of us would travel to work by foot and bus, which would take about an hour and then start the day from around about 9:30ish in the morning until about 4ish in the afternoon (sometimes finishing earlier if the cement laid earlier needed to dry and we had done all that we could. I now understand people standing around on building sites – they’re waiting for things to dry or waiting for supplies to be delivered!)
The journey to and from work was rather wonderful walking through the streets of a beautiful part of Rio with amazingly colorful buildings draped in tropical trees, with perhaps one or two monkeys swinging around! Getting the bus was like an Olympic sport. They zoom by and you have to be very forceful to point at the bus you want and wave it down to stop.
There are many buses driving by all at once to many different destinations. Then when your bus stopped – it went way past the bus stop. A hoard of people would then charge the bus (I am laughing as I am writing this). It put a smile on my face twice a day. Many other things would also put a smile on my face throughout the day... read on!
The day would be spent on site – lots of digging, shoveling, moving supplies around, and making cement. As I was working on a favela there was no machinery. So if you wanted a hole through concrete you got a hammer and chisel and you hit REALLY, REALLY HARD, MANY, MANY TIMES until the cracks appeared. Then you dug with your hands and moved rubble and ‘goodness knows what’ out of the way to lay pipes.
You want to be sure to raise the foundation of the floor to the right height before you lay the cement. You walk around the favela looking for whatever you can find to fill the hole. There were buckets and sacks a plenty to fill and then carry to where they were needed.
We did have the luxury of a trolley and a wheelbarrow on one day – that was a treat! But the wheelbarrow got a bit mashed up – folks it wasn’t our fault. We were carrying a lot of stuff around! We did, however, contribute to the cost of making it good again.
To level off the ground before laying the concrete – well that required one piece of vertical wood that was hammered into another piece of wood that was horizontal. Then the vertical piece would be held and lifted so that the horizontal piece would be lifted off the ground. Then it would be slammed really, really hard, many, many times to get a ‘smoothish’ finish. I hope that makes sense.
Many occasions we were digging up rats, cockroaches and goodness knows what. There was one day when a few of us moved some planks of wood out of the way to get some sand and a large rat went running off followed by a small swarm of cockroaches. Marvelous – not! I am afraid a few cockroaches followed us home on the bus! Sorry Cariocas! (The name for the people who come from Rio). It was actually very funny. You had to be there folks (so you just have to volunteer!).
Mixing cement of various grades (I didn’t know there were so many options!) was becoming second nature. And where did we mix this stuff? In the alleyways of the favela. Outsides people's doors; they were incredibly tolerant and generous.
To see the gradual metamorphosis of a space being dug, pipes laid, electricity being harnessed (ladder, wire, wire cutters, wire inserted into existing wires taped up and eureka – electricity which meant.. radio which meant.. music, which meant... singing and dancing!) a foundation being laid, bricks being laid was truly wonderful. To see the beginnings of a home being built and being part of it was a humbling experience.
And the family whom we were building the home for were absolutely wonderful! The kids would go to school and then come home and want to get involved, help with making cement, getting supplies, bringing "agua and café" (water and coffee) for the thirsty workers.
I had many conversations with the locals about their lives as well as my life in London. I learned some basic Portuguese before I went – well worth it and continuing now I am back. They taught me some more Portuguese and I taught them some English. The kids were amazing. They were absolute mimics.
Everyone and I mean everyone was so generous! We went into people's homes who barely had enough to feed themselves and were making us coffee buying bread/ham and cheese for us as well making desserts for us. So many moments touched my heart. And they stay with me everyday. I am planning to go back already.
What was your favorite moment of the trip?
Nicole: Gosh. I have no idea. Each day had many favorite moments – please don’t ask me to choose!
Tell us either about something that surprised you or the most interesting cultural difference you encountered.
Nicole: This didn’t surprise me – however it did at the same time: I was told that the Brazilian culture is warm and friendly. And indeed that has been my experience of Brazilians and Brazilian events in London. Well, the generosity and warmth was wonderful. Truly wonderful.
Even people who didn’t have much - if anything at all - were very generous. The family life in the favelas was so tactile and attentive. When parents were talking with each other they would either be holding a child on their lap or had their arm around a child. Or they would be playing or coloring with the child. The children were not put in front of televisions or put in high chairs and left alone – they were spoken with constantly.
Do you feel like you made a significant impact on the local community? Why or why not?
Nicole: Yes but not just me – my colleagues too. Not only through the labor we provided, but also the inspiration. Many people (women and men) were intrigued that two women were working on a building site, covered in muck and stuff and just got on with the job.
Apparently it’s not common for women to work on building sites in Brazil. I think also by international volunteers coming in and sharing life stories about our different experiences as well as our individual countries, it sheds light for previously unforeseen opportunities. Psychologically speaking, I think it inspires new imaginations and possibilities for individual and community growth.