Memória #1: Meu trabalho e meus colegas

Eu acabo de voltar a Washington, DC.  Foram dois ótimos meses, cheios de aventuras e novas pessoas e muita aprendizagem.  Vou refletir sobre a experiência e compartilhar mais com quem tiver interesse.  Vou postar umas fotos e descrever os momentos nos quais foram tiradas.  Tentarei traduzir os posts para meus amigos brasileiros!


Esta primeira memória trata dos meus colegas e o meu trabalho na organização de microcrédito.  Estos cinco brasileiros maravilhosos (mais o diretor e outra agente de crédito, que não aparecem nesta foto) foram os colegas com quem mais trabalhava.  As agentes de crédito me ensinaram como funciona o microcrédito, me introduziram aos clientes, me permitirarm participar de comitês de crédito, e me trataram com tanta gentileza e paciência.  As duas agentes de crédito que aparecem aqui são Elisabete e Carla.  Eliana é a mãe da organização.  Ela já trabalhou lá por dez anos e sabe tudo!  Patricia e Tiago trabalham com administração e cobrança.  Tiago foi amigável e interessado em conversar desde minha primeira semana.  Almoçamos várias vezes e falamos de tudo–desde a familia até a cultura de Salvador.  Minha amizade com estas pessoas boas foi um intercâmbio verdadeiro, aprendendo um de outro.  Nós tiramos esta foto na minha último dia de trabalho, sexta-feira o 2 de agosto.  Meus colegas me surpreenderam com um café de manhã de surpresa suntuoso, como se pode ver nesta foto:

Surprise goodbye breakfast with my work colleagues

Surprise goodbye breakfast with my work colleagues

Eu senti sobrecarregado com gratidão por a gentileza dos meus colegas durante meu tempo com a organização.  Tenho sorte passar tempo com eles, e também tenho sorte ter a habilidade de mante-me conectado com eles!


Memory #1: Working with microfinance

I returned home to Washington, DC, this week.  It was a great two months in Brazil full of adventures and new people and learning a ton.  I’m going to reflect on the experience and share a bit with whoever is interested by posting a few photos and writing about the moments when they were taken.



This first memory is of my colleagues and work at the microfinance nonprofit.  These five wonderful Brazilians (plus the director, not pictured) were the colleagues I worked with most.  The credit agents taught me how microcredit really works, introduced me to their clients, let me participate in loan deliberations, and treated me with kindness and linguistic patience.  The two credit agents here are Elizabete, second from the left, and Carla, second from the right.  Eliana, between me and Elizabete, is the mom of the organization.  She’s worked there for nine years and knows the ins and outs.  Patricia, on the far left, works with Tiago, in white, on administration and collection.  Tiago was friendly and interested in talking with me from week one.  We got lunch several times to talk about everything–our families, Afro-Brazilian religion, privilege and race in Brazil.  Our friendship was a genuine exchange, learning about each other and from each other and just hanging out.  We took this photo on my last day in the office, Friday, August 2nd.  My colleagues surprised me with a goodbye breakfast that morning–a wonderful Brazilian spread that you can see for yourself:


Surprise goodbye breakfast with my work colleagues

Surprise goodbye breakfast with my work colleagues

I was overwhelmed with gratitude for their kindness then and throughout my time volunteering/interning at the organization.  Fortunately, we can stay connected–I’ve already gotten to chat with Tiago and Elizabete.  They’re doing well and send a hug to all of my family.  So in case you’re reading this and you’re related to me, here’s a hug from them!

Becoming ‘cultured’ in Brazil


The national team celebrates after the victory against Uruguay

“Brazil won!  The national team beat Spain in the Confederations Cup championship!”  Last Sunday night I cheered along with hundreds of young Brazilians as we watched Brazil defeat the #1 team in the world 3 to 0.  Brazil scored a goal within the first 5 minutes, setting the celebratory tone for the night.  I somehow ended up standing near the small group of Spanish expats who were cheering for the enemy; they got lots of good-natured taunts sent their way.  The semifinal game against Uruguay was actually more exciting—a 2-1 nailbiter with good offense on both sides.  You could hear fireworks and cheers over the whole city.

Brazil’s futebol games captivate the entire country.  Almost every family has a TV set, even deep in the Amazon, so soccer and the nightly soap operas are two of the very few things that reach the entire nation.  On any street, you can keep track of the score by the shouts of joy and disgust that emanate from every window.  Walking back from a hike while visiting an outdoorsy town in the interior a few weeks ago, I could tell when Brazil scored by the cheers… and when Italy scored against them by the groans… and when Brazil (graças a Deus, thank God) scored again to win the match.

Duke's Cameron Crazies

Duke’s Cameron Crazies

I’ve experienced die-hard sports fanaticism as a Duke student and Cameron Crazie, but Brazil just might have the Blue Devils beat.  My 65-year-old host mother shouts at the television like a burly New England Patriots fan would shout during the last play of a close Super Bowl.  “Shoot, shoot!  Ah, you idiot, that was too late!”  When Brazil won against Uruguay, she ran into the street to celebrate with neighbors.  I followed her out and shouted, “Nós ganhamosOuvocês ganharam.  (We won!  Or… y’all won.)”  She stopped celebrating just long enough to kindly correct me—“ Nós ganhamos.”

Brazilians love soccer almost as much as they love their families.  I know that I love my family, and the most Americans do, but Brazilian familial love reaches a whole new level.  A young Brazilian woman I met asked me where I live in the US.  I told her that my parents live in Washington, DC, while I go to school 5 hours farther south.  “O que?”  She thought she misheard me at first.  She asked where I stayed during the week—assuming that I lived at home for the weekends, at the very least.  Here (like much of the rest of the world, I guess) most children live with the parents until they marry.   If they go to college, they attend a university in their city and live with their parents.  When I said, “I live at my university,” I think she imagined me sleeping in an empty lecture hall.  Dorms are a foreign concept; I try to convey the idea by describing apartment buildings for students of just one university who all live together, without their parents or siblings.  This brasileira calls her mother every day when she’s away from home, even if she’s just visiting friends for the weekend.  She doesn’t cook—because her mom still makes all her meals!  (Sounds pretty good to me.  College food can’t compete with my dad’s lamb-stuffed Bell peppers.)


A Brazilian extended family. Taken from a Google search, I confess, but still representative of the way everyone gets together for Sunday lunches, and the very intergenerational feel of Brazilian social life.

An exuberantly friendly 50-year-old neighbor still lives with his mother.  Isn’t that a bit odd, I asked my host mother.  Of course not!  He never married, so why would he ever want to leave?  The logic here is different.  People seem to feel sorry for Americans when I tell them that most people move out around age 18.  And children tend to settle close by to their parents.  The 23-year-old who lives across the street from me (with his parents) took me to visit his grandmother last night after the Uruguay game; the walk took all of four minutes.  His aunt also lives there, because she never married.  A few minutes after entering the house, his 93-year-old grandmother gingerly took my hand and murmured something to me.  She repeated herself: “Let’s get married.”  I thought I had misheard until she said, “I’ve been looking for a new husband.  I want a man who’s young, light-skinned, handsome, and rich.”  She smiled mischievously and asked, “Oh, are you rich?”

Brazilians seem more flirtatious than Americans, although there’s often no romantic intention.  It was hard to tell with my neighbor’s grandmother.  But if I wanted to flirt with her more, I could probably message her on Facebook.  Americans started social media, but Brazilians have brought the game to a whole new level.  Instead of getting my number, new friends—and coworkers, and my 11-year-old neighbor, much to my surprise—just find me on Facebook.  A call-in Catholic radio show that my host mother listens to for endless hours each day even invites listeners to find them on Facebook, I think to post prayer requests.  The 99.9% peaceful protests that spread across the country last month (see my previous post) are organized and promoted over Facebook and Twitter and other sites I’m not hip enough to know about.

One last bit of cultural learning–Brazilians put thermometers in their armpits to take their temperature.  Not their mouths.  So when my host mom gave me a thermometer when I had a mild flu this week, she burst into laughter when she realized I had it in my mouth.  It didn’t taste too great, and now I know why…

O povo acordou: Brazil takes to the streets

Signs at protests across the country proclaim that “O povo acordou“:
The people have awakened.
Tens of thousands take to the streets of São Paulo, the business capital of Brazil

Tens of thousands take to the streets of São Paulo, the business capital of Brazil

What has happened?  What began on June 6th as a small group opposing a 20-centavo (8.5 US cents) increase in bus fares has grown exponentially in both size and scope.  On June 20th alone, at least 1.5 million Brazilians took to the streets in over 100 cities across the country.  It is a peaceful movement, although there are looters on the fringes who steal and vandalize at some large demonstrations.  Protesters have occasionally clashed with police but law enforcement seems to have learned that the protest will stay peaceful as long as they accompany marches without trying to disperse them.

This is the first major protest movement here in over 20 years, since millions took to the streets in 1992 to demand President Collor´s impeachment for corruption.  The demonstrations have shattered the image of Brazilians as apathetic and unengaged citizens willing to put up with poor results.  A social media-obsessed youth are using Facebook and other sites to organize and galvanize; signs read “Saimos do Facebook (We’ve Left Facebook)” and a popular Twitter hashtag is “#VemPraRua (#ComeToTheStreet).”  The whole country is riveted.  The main newspaper for Salvador dedicated all but two pages of its news coverage to the protests, although soccer still got an almost equal number of pages.  Politicians are bewildered and terrified.

Why are they protesting?  The first gathering sought to prevent an increase in bus fares; one of the movement’s coordinating groups is the Movimento Passe Livre or Free Fare Movement.  Over the next week the motivations diversified: weak public transport in general, outrage at police brutality, disgust with massive spending for the World Cup and Olympics (one sign said, “If your child is sick, take her to the stadium”), low-quality public education, low-quality public healthcare and expensive private healthcare, and really unbelievable corruption in a country: almost 200 sitting congressmen have been charged with crimes from siphoning funds to contracting hit men.  Not “accused of.”  Charged in court by the government.  Understandably, trust in government in 2012 was at a pitiful 33%, low even for the developing world.

Protesters breached security and surged on top of the Brazilian Congress on June 17th.  They reportedly sang the national anthem from the roof of congress

Protesters breached security and surged on top of the Brazilian Congress on June 17th. They reportedly sang the national anthem from the roof of congress

A Folha de São Paulo survey provided good data on the June 17th protests in that city.   The most popular reasons people gave for demonstrating: the bus fare increase (56%), corruption (40%), police violence/repression (31%), for better transport (27%), and against politicians in general (24%).  (Respondents could give multiple answers, so this doesn’t total to 100%.)  Over the past two weeks the focus on bus fares has diminished to focus more on education and health.

Brazil's tax burden compared to Latin America overall.  Remember that the US's taxes make up about 15% of GDP

Brazil’s tax burden compared to Latin America overall. Remember that the US’s taxes make up about 15% of GDP

People resent their massive tax bills when they see unpaved roads (only 14% are paved nationally), overcrowded hospitals, and exclusive public universities.  The tax burden here is impressive: as Brazilians say, you have to work 4 months of the year just to pay the government.  Taxes and government revenue account for over 37.5% of GDP.  In the US, with its massive military spending and ballooning safety net costs, that number is 15.1%.  Latin America’s other large economy keeps it to 23.8% despite a war on drug trafficking organizations and serious social expenditures.  Even Venezuela, where Hugo Chávez led a vast expansion of the state, still only takes in 34% of GDP in taxes.  People feel that they’re being robbed by corrupt politicians, and I can see why.  As The Economist put it, Brazilians

pay the highest taxes of any country outside the developed world (36% of GDP) and get appalling public services in return. Violent crime is endemic; crack cocaine is sold and consumed openly in every big city centre. A minimum-wage worker in São Paulo’s centre whose employer does not cover transport costs (an obligation for formal employees) will spend a fifth of gross pay to spend hours a day on hot, overcrowded buses that trundle in from the city’s periphery. But this is nothing new in a country of gaping inequality—and in fact economic growth in the past decade has brought the biggest gains to those at the bottom of the heap.

Who is protesting?   The same Folha survey of the São Paulo marchers on June 17th gives a picture of who has taken to the streets.  They are young: 53% were under 25.  They are educated: 77% attended college, compared to 24% of all Brazilians.  They are middle class: the country´s poor have greatly benefitted under the past decade of Workers´ Party governments, and the wealthy have done well thanks to a strong economy.  The middle class feel maligned and they are demanding action from politicians.  Most importantly, they do not support any political party: 84% said they were unaffiliated, versus 47% of the general population.  This is a movement largely of the young, the educated, the middle class, and the politically unaffiliated.  But they have the support of the general population, much like the Occupy movement did in the US: “[p]olls suggest that three-quarters of Brazilians back the protests.”

Has anything changed?   Mayors have scrambled to meet with the movement’s leaders–to the extent that there are any actual leaders.  Several big cities have canceled bus fare increases or proactively reduced bus fares.  In Salvador, my city, the mayor received a letter with demands yesterday.  He said an actual free fare is impossible but that 24-hour service might be feasible; he also demanded that bus companies submit their budgets for government review.  (The bus companies are privately owned–surprising in a country where many banks and the only oil company are all state-owned.)

Dilma meets with student leaders from the Movimento Passe Livre

Dilma meets with student leaders from the Movimento Passe Livre

The national Congress voted to dedicate 100% of oil revenues to education and health.  President Dilma Rousseff, known to all by her first name, has spoken to the nation on TV, convened emergency meetings of governors and mayors, and met with student leaders.  She’s reminded them that she herself was a protest leader and tortured prisoner during the military dictatorship that only ended in 1985.  On Tuesday, she proposed five “pactosto address protesters’ demands.  They include new investments in education, health, and transportation as well as a commitment to desperately needed political reform.

So what now?  I think the demonstrations will fizzle out in the first week of July, after the FIFA Confederations Cup ends.  Smaller groups will continue to take to the streets but there will not be the massive occupations of city centers that we have seen.  But the genie has come out of the bottle.  I think the month of protests has spurred some immediate changes–lower bus fares, dedicated spending on education and health.  It has also undeniably freaked out FIFA and the outside world that is waiting for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics.  FIFA is demanding that Brazil revamp security plans for next year and even whispers threats about moving the World Cup if things don’t get better.  But the most important effect is long-term.  I believe the protests have shifted the discourse in Brazil.  Politicians will pay more attention to the middle class, to health and education and transportation, to the young.  My generation of Brazilians just might stay active in politics–and the nation will never be the same.

A treat for anyone who’s stuck with me this far: this New York Times interactive graphic shows and translates protest signs that range from angry to inspiring to ironic.

Personal Update: Projects at work and a weekend adventure

I’m about to write a post about the ongoing protest movement in Brazil, but I want to tell family and friends what I’m doing before trying to explain what the country is doing.

DukeEngage has sponsored me to come here and engage in immersive, relational, and effective service/civic engagement.  My mentor reminded me that while I won’t change anyone’s life in two months, I can help an organization that does change lives; I am here to help an NGO whose mission is to help small and often poor entrepreneurs advance their own businesses.  I don’t have a lot of expertise, but I have time and energy to offer.  It’s definitely indirect service but I feel like Duke’s investment was worth it as long as I provide some value to the organization.

I’m working on projects that my boss and I decided on.  First, he had me research ways to earn new clients and enter new markets for microfinance.  It felt like business consulting that I’m entirely unqualified for, but I came up with a few ideas that he seemed to like (leveraging word-of-mouth, using social media, using behavioral economics to design incentives for new borrowers).  This week I created a massive spreadsheet that compares my microfinance organization with regional benchmarks and  other Brazilian agencies of similar size, drawing data from  Next I am supposed to create some video client testimonials; I’ll pick some long-term clients whose stories show how the organization can help people, interview them on camera, and use my as-yet-nonexistent video editing skills to create some promotional videos that might attract new clients through social media.  Through my work I’m learning a TON about microfinance and about business in general.  I’ve also picked up some very specialized vocabulary like “working capital,”
merchandise in stock,” and the various government agencies who regulate credit… if you ever need to negotiate a loan in Portuguese, just call me up.

My boss is the overall director of the 27-person agency; he’s patient with my spoken Portuguese (and impressed by my written Portuguese, miraculously) and seems to enjoy talking about big-picture things with me. My program coordinator explained that he values the cultural exchange aspect and the chance to engage with someone intellectually.  My coworkers are super friendly.  They love to ask whether I’ve been dancing the typical forró and trying Bahian foods like acarajé, a shrimp and bean fritter that is kind of like a giant hush puppy with shrimp.  (The answer is yes to both, although I wish I didn’t have two left feet for dancing.)

This past weekend I had a great adventure.  My homestay friend and two Germans I recently met went to Lençóis, a beautiful and touristy town just outside of an amazing national park, the Chapada Diamantina.  The town was PACKED because of the festival of São João.  Everyone who lives in the big coastal cities of Bahia heads to the interior of the state for a weekend full of parties and dancing.  It’s kind of a get-back-to-your-rurual-roots party: everyone wears jeans, plaid shirts, and straw hats, throws back a few traditional genipapo drinks, and dances forró.  The parties in the plaza were fun, but the highlight for me was the hikes and adventures we had in the national park.  I’ll sign off with a few pictures from those sights: a 300-foot-long natural waterslide and the view from the beautiful Pai do Inacio mountain.



Language struggles, microcredit lessons, and some adventures

PORTUGUESE IS SO HARD!  I don´t feel like a student of a foreign language.  I feel like a chimpanzee trying to learn a human language.  My colegas (work colleagues) are patient and take time to explain things, but the language barrier is still frustrating.  I wish I could outsource the language centers of my brain to Google Translate.  Portuguese shares a lot in common with Spanish, which I´m more comfortable speaking, but the differences are subtle and tricky and seemingly infinite.  My friend who shares my homestay speaks both English and Spanish fluently as well as French, but she never took any Portuguese before arriving. We make a good team: she understands more than I do, and I can speak more than she can.  It’s still pretty depressing how much effort it takes us to communicate.  BUT.  The challenges mean that I’m learning and being ‘stretched.’  With language learning, what doesn’t kill you can only make you stronger.  I think I’ll come home in August metaphorically buff.

Over the past week I’ve learned TONS about microcredit.  I did site visits with the organization’s three credit agents on Friday.  We visited three different groups, each of which included three small business owners.  The first group represents the ideal borrowing unit.  The three clients are men in their 40s who live within a stone’s throw of each other.  They’ve each owned their own businesses for at least 20 years.  The group’s leader, who runs a recycling outfit that amasses recyclables from aluminum soda cans to washing machines, is applying for his 18th—EIGHTEENTH—loan from my organization.  That’s great news.  We love loan renewals; they indicate reliable borrowers whose businesses are growing, producing income, and generating employment.  He’ll borrow US$5,000, the maximum amount we loan.

The recycler took us to his partners’ enterprises, partly to show the way but mostly because any stranger is in danger in his favela (a poor neighborhood or slum, often without any public services). His compatriots own a restaurant and a convenience/beer store.  The will jointly guarantee each other’s loans, which total US$11,000.  Part of the loan evaluation process (in which I participated today) involves character assessment.  The credit agents, smart and knowledgable women who have taught me everything I know, pointed out that the three have been friends and neighbors for 20 years.  That close friendship earned them points on the evaluation.  It seems that my organization, and perhaps group-based microcredit in general, both relies on and fosters trust, cooperation, and interdependence.

Anywho, social life here has been fun.  I’ve seen capoeira, learned some forró (a traditional dance of Brazil’s Northeast), gone to a big reggae-samba-pop concert, and hung out on the street with the neighbors.  Here’s a picture at the local church’s forró party with Luana, my lively 12-year-old neighbor; me; Yamira, my friend who shares my homestay; and Julyanna, a Brazilian from the interior of the state who lives at our homestay.

forro foto

We live 10 minutes from the cultural heart of the city, called the Pelourinho.  “Pelourinho” literally means pillory or whipping post; the area’s main plaza was the site of countless slave auctions and horrible abuse.  Today guidebooks cite the area as the heart of Afro-Brazilian art and culture.  Traditional music, poetry, dance, and food abound.  Yamira and I are leaving right now for a open-mic poetry night at an African bar called Sankofa.  Keep me updated on how y’all are doing, and thanks for reading!

Steps and missteps: Starting work and falling into a routine

I started work yesterday!  For the next nine weeks I’m interning at a microfinance organization that provides small loans of USD$150 up to $1000 for individual micro-business owners.  (The Ecumenical Center for Economic Development, CEADe by its Portuguese initials.  The main office, which I work in, has about 12 employees.  They include the director, Adelmo, and an accountant, administrator, and three credit agents.  On Friday I will head out into the city with one of the credit agents to see what the microfinance process looks like on the ground.  Here’s an example of how I THINK CEADe works in an ideal world: A credit agent meets a woman who informally sells homemade lunches on a street in the commercial district.  The vendor (aka micro-entrepreneur) applies for a loan of $150 to buy a new stove.  She turns to CEADe because traditional banks won’t make loans that small or to people who lack enough money/property to put up as collateral in case they can’t pay it back.  With the new stove, she makes more money and gradually pays the loan back over 2 years with a 2.5% interest rate.  With the rest of her additional profits she pays school fees for her children.  She can renew her loan for higher amounts to further expand the business and maybe hire an employee.

Adelmo, the director, seems to have some lofty expectations for me.  On my first day he outlined two main projects he wants me to research.  I think he sees me as an economic/management consultant who can evaluate the organization and make suggestions.  I earnestly tried to persuade him that I don’t know anything about anything but he seems genuinely interested in hearing an outsider’s perspective on their operations, even though I’ve emphasized that I’m just a university student interested in learning about microfinance and how poor people use it.  My first task is to research and generate ideas for expanding CEADe’s client base.  He was asking: How can we recruit clients in new neighborhoods?  How can we most effectively advertise?  One of my first products will be a ‘best practices’ list of how to recruit new clients.  I’m doing a fair amount of English-language research from good sources online, but most of the info will come from the credit agents themselves.  I might be able to help them create a more concrete list of strategies that can inform new credit agents in the future or maybe I’ll find some new ideas through the research.  I feel a bit like a business consultant who has zero expertise and zero experience, but I’ll see what I can do.  (Feel free to email me with suggestions:

Aside from work, I’m starting to adjust to the city and my routine in it.  I am seriously lucky with my homestay.  Dora is about 65 years old and seems like the queen of the neighborhood; everyone knows her and shows deference to her.  She seems to enjoy hosting foreign volunteers and is determined that we WILL speak like Brazilians by August.  Living with her is kind of like an extended visit at grandma’s house (but unfortunately without any card games).  Her food is wonderful and really varied.  She made okra with carrots, a combo I could see my dad cooking.  Brazilians eat their main meal around noon and a light meal about 7.  I’m usually ravenous at dinner, though—it might be time to start a secret snack collection to make up for the small meal.

I’m enjoying the Portuguese classes that I take along with two fellow ProWorld volunteers three mornings a week.  I expected my Portuguese to be ridiculously inadequate—and I was right.  My flashcards will run out depressingly fast.  Spoken Portuguese seems like a wholly different language than written Portuguese, so it’s been tough to keep up with conversations.  This is just week one, though, and I’m already starting to understand the novela that we watch every night at my homestay.  I’m already starting to recognize the funny mistakes I make.  For example, I went through three semesters of Portuguese mishearing my profesoras and thinking that Andréia is the equivalent of Andrew.  Apparently, Andréia means Andrea.  André means Andrew.  I learned this because a ProWorld employee from Oregon is conveniently named Andrea/Andréia.  Now I’ll never forget…

One thing I can’t quite adjust to is the weather!  The temperature itself is not that bad—highs around 85 or 90 degrees F.  It’s the humidity.  I thought North Carolina in July was uncomfortable—that’s nothing!  Especially when air conditioning is a rare luxury.  The 15 minute walk to work leaves me drenched in sweat.  I went for a run yesterday evening; I probably did 12 minute miles and was still panting.