Beating to the Rhythm of Desire: In Salvador, Bahia, the Traditional Wisdom of Brazilian Candomble Has Combined with the Innovative Ideas of an Italian Educator to Inspire an Impoverished Neighborhood's "Children of Exclusion"

By Shorr, Victoria | Americas (English Edition), January-February 2007 | Go to article overview

Beating to the Rhythm of Desire: In Salvador, Bahia, the Traditional Wisdom of Brazilian Candomble Has Combined with the Innovative Ideas of an Italian Educator to Inspire an Impoverished Neighborhood's "Children of Exclusion"


Shorr, Victoria, Americas (English Edition)


It's one of the last remnants of the great Atlantic rainforest that once blanketed the whole coast of Brazil. But to get a view, you've got to walk very carefully, or drive very slowly, down muddy, rutted roads through the helter-skelter neighborhood of Piraja, where the poor patch together their own houses and where visitors to Salvador are unlikely to set foot.

Which is too bad, because there's magic out here, to the east of the city, far from the coconut beaches that stretch up and down the coast. In 1823, this was the site of the key battle that led to Brazil's independence from Portugal, and before that, there were Indian settlements here, and even some quilombos, or runaway slave camps. Now it's the site of an extremely cosmopolitan social experiment, the place where the traditional wisdom of a Brazilian Candomble priestess and the sophistication of an Italian educator-philosopher came together in the mind of a young artist and resulted in what the ancient Greeks would have called a gymnasium, an all-inclusive school/community center that is changing the lives of the children of the neighborhood.

Most of them are poor, black, and not in school. How could they be? Anyone can do the math; at last count there were twenty thousand school-age children, three rickety elementary schools, one middle school, and no high schools (since by then, no one needs them because no one from here is going anywhere). There are no cinemas, libraries, theaters, or even parks anywhere in the neighborhood. There's one small town square, and it's dusty or muddy, depending on the season.

Alberto Pitta and his brothers grew up poor and black like everyone else in Piraja. But their mother is a mae de santo, the holy mother of a Candomble house, the traditional African-Brazilian religion that is deeply rooted in the city of Salvador and its surrounding area. Candomble religious leaders are closely tied to their communities, and they often find themselves being grassroots leaders, almost by default.

Dona Santinha, as the Pittas' mother is called, built her own Candomble house on the edge of the rain forest in Piraja. There, she could collect the herbs she needed for her religious ceremonies and for treating friends and neighbors. She raised her children with little money, but no lack of the vision and drive characteristic of natural leaders. One of her sons became a dancer who studied abroad, another became a teacher, and another a soccer coach. And Alberto Pitta, the visual artist in the family, became famous for his fabric design.

Alberto started with traditional African motifs, which he put through a sort of cultural looking-glass. (In his workshop, you see photos of Cezanne or Matisse paintings next to the warrior masks and bright robes of Nigerian princes.) Before long, his cloth was outfitting Carnaval groups--groups like Olodum and Ile Ayes--and he had become a force on the Bloco Afro scene. Soon his work was covering pillows and sofas in the houses of the great Salvador musicians, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Carlinhos Brown, and he was getting commissions to outfit their Carnaval groups as well.

Alberto could have taken the money to the bank and called it good. But right outside his clients' houses, he had to drive through crowds of miserable children in the streets. This isn't news in either Salvador or Piraja. But by then, Alberto had become an admirer of the Florentine educator and philosopher Cesare de Florio La Rocca, who in the early 1990s had founded Project Axe and was taking the poorest children off the meanest streets in Salvador. He called them "children of exclusion" and began turning them into students and into citizens with the possibility of a profession and a future.

La Rocca calls his approach to education the "pedagogy of desire" and argues that all education begins with "dreams and desires." First a student must have a desire, something he or she wants and likes, something that speaks to him or her. …

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