Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Califa: Jewel of the Favela

Turning 50 the first of October, I felt I should make plans for something I’d look forward to, rather than dread as the date grew nearer. I had enough frequent flyer miles for a ticket to Europe or South America. After two wonderful trips to Brazil, I decided on a two-week adventure in Rio de Janeiro.

As I started making plans, I thought I would like to do something different this trip. Being an artist myself, somehow I wanted to make contact with an artist who lived in a favela (slum). My desire was to meet the artist at his home, and talk to him about his art and his life. I had no idea how to make this happen, and even Brazilian friends would tell me I was crazy to even think of going to a favela due to the violence. My determination did not allow me to waver from this goal.

I started posting ads on travel related websites to see if anyone knew of an artist who lived in a favela, but usually only got suggestions to go on an organized favela tour, while others told me the tours were a waste of time and money. I thought it sounded demeaning to the residents for their neighborhood to be a tourist attraction because of their poverty.

Several weeks later, I received a response from a young lady in Rio named Roberta Tavares. Reading her first e-mail, she seemed as excited about my quest as I was. Roberta told me about a man named Califa who lived in a favela known as Ramos who sounded like a good candidate. Not only was he an artisan as both a maker of jewelry and sculpture, but also a philosopher. In retrospect, I see Roberta as a literal answer to prayer.

After the 30-hour trip from Honolulu, leaving Brazilian immigration, I saw my friend Fabrizio who kindly offered to pick me up at the airport. As I was riding with him on the highway towards my Copacabana apartment, I saw policemen with bullet proof vests and machine guns at every intersection. This was “in case there was any trouble”, according to Fabrizio. I suddenly thought of my mother’s words of warning the morning her phone call woke me up a week before my departure. “They are killing white people in Brazil”, she said with a tone of panic in her voice! “I think you should cancel your trip, even if you lose money.” Though I checked out several news websites as well as the U.S. State Department’s, I saw nothing viable to take such drastic action.

Rio is one of the world's most violent cities, with an annual homicide rate of about 50 killed per 100,000 inhabitants. (Less than three weeks after returning to Honolulu, I read a news report that 12 had been killed in two Rio favelas during a drug raid. One of the casualties was a 4 year old boy.)

Ten days after my arrival in Rio, and meeting Roberta once for drinks, coconut shrimp, and a decadent chocolate dessert, I met her near my apartment so we could travel together to visit Califa in a distant favela. There is no way I would have been able to find where to go without Roberta’s help, even if I were fluent in Portuguese. We travelled about 45 minutes in a crowded van to get to our destination. There were no bus stops. If people needed a ride, they would simply wave down the driver to get on the van, or let the driver know when they had reached their destination.

All of a sudden, Roberta informed me that we had arrived at Ramos favela. We were at the bottom of a hill that began the way to Califa’s home. A grocery store was across the street. Since Roberta had told me that there was no running water in their home (it was delivered by truck once a month), I thought we should at least bring the family some bottled water. Prices were much cheaper than in Copacabana or Ipanema. We also bought them some chicken, beef, lunchmeat, cheese, olives (I think Roberta thought that was strange, but they are a favorite of mine.), and bread. I especially wanted to bring them this gift since they had graciously offered to have us come in time for lunch.

As we started up the hill, I could not believe that this dream I’d had for months was suddenly turning into reality. There was an old woman by her upstairs window looking down at us. I called out to her, “Boa tarde.” (Good afternoon.). The woman looked at her watch and remarked, “Sim (yes), boa tarde! I thought it was still “bom dia” (good morning).

We did not have to ascend as far as I feared until we were at Califa’s vine-covered home in the heart of the favela. Califa came to the door wearing a big smile on his face and a Rastafarian-looking hat that once covered long dreadlocks. There had been a tumor on his brain on which he had recently had surgery. He was now undergoing chemotherapy and other cancer treatments.

Once inside, we met his wife Marcia and son Kauam. It was obvious as soon as we arrived that there was much love in their home as well as abundant hospitality. As we walked up the stairs to the next floor, there was a window with a panoramic view of the harbor, and a guava tree so close I could have picked one off the tree by reaching out of the window. There were marks on the concrete walls where stray bullets had landed as a result of battles between drug lords of neighboring favelas. We got comfortable on the two couches they had and began our visit. Califa spoke some English, but to make it easier and not be misunderstood, Roberta was able to interpret for us.

It did not take long to be absorbed in the world of Califa and his family. Kauam greeted me in English. He had no money for proper English lessons, but would learn from books on his own. Each time Roberta would visit, he would try out a few new English words on her. Kauam proudly showed me the numerous medals he had won in copeira (a cross between fighting and dance).

It was obvious that Califa had a heart for his friends and neighbors. He felt that due to the poverty that was prevalent there, its residents had a small world perspective. There was no incentive for the children to learn English, for they could never imagine themselves in a situation that would warrant using it. The government gave them no motivation to learn, and the people simply accepted their lot in life. Califa realized that to learn English meant to get ahead in life. That is why he encouraged his son to gain knowledge of English. He remarked that, “Children need to be shown direction while they are young and pliable before they are older and set in their ways”.

Roberta pointed out the computer in the room which had been promised to Kauam for his twelfth birthday. Kauam’s parents sacrificed to buy him the computer as an investment in his future. This would help him to learn, succeed, and be able to earn more in life. Kauam would also make bracelets to sell, and he would save the money to help finance his education. Kauam’s goal was to be able to help his parents by studying hard for a job with better prospects.

Most of the residents of the favela only concentrated on their basic needs of food and clothing. They did not have the luxury of growing intellectually. Califa said, “I do not have a conflict in being poor. If you have a good soul, you can be happy. When the people want to buy the basic necessities in life and struggle at that, it causes not only depression, but a poor soul. As a result, those who are in a position to give them work can underpay them”. Even though the people know what is going on & that they should be better compensated, they simply accept it, as “at least they will have money for bread”.

I asked Califa what made him different. He said, “I am always looking to not be restrictive. I do not want to be a person who lives in a box. I always want to learn new things, and growing in wisdom is more important than money. I may have grown up poor, but that does not mean I grew up stupid. Wisdom gives stability and a relationship with God. There is something bigger than this life. Each day God gives us gives the opportunity for us to change what we can or live with what we must. You either have God in your heart, or fear, and I didn’t have space for fear.”

Califa had been crafting his jewelry and sculptures for 23 years. He acknowledges that it is a gift from God. For 14 years he had worked at polishing diamonds, but seeing that his boss was dishonest and would charge one price and then change quality diamonds for those of a lesser quality, he left that profession. It was his cousin in the state of Espirito Santo who recognized Califa’s gift as a craftsman and encouraged him in that direction.

Being a great admirer of God and nature, Califa likes to use things from nature in his work such as semi-precious stones, feathers, bamboo, and seeds from Brazil and Africa. He enjoyed finding shells on the beach, making them into a work of art, and bringing them back to life as an object of beauty. While creating, Califa would use that time as therapy. He would write poetry and contemplate things such as love and nature.

Califa and Marcia would take the products which had been created on mostly rainy days to sell them by walking 8-10 kilometers a day on the beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana.

Due to Califa’s battle with cancer, he was not as strong as he was which made it difficult for him to sell his crafts on the beaches of Rio as it was hard for him to walk. I was amazed at his attitude, and how positive he was. He said, “I thanked God for this trial, as most people do not get the chance to have a life-threatening illness to really evaluate their lives. Some are simply killed by a passing bus.” I saw no fear of death in his life, but an attitude of gratefulness, love and hope that there would be a future.

After talking for some time, lunch was ready. Marcia had prepared a delicious meal of pasta with cheese, hamburger, and ham in it with refreshing maracuj√° (passion fruit) juice to drink. While we were eating, Califa’s daughter Luciana came by with a beautiful smile. Luciana had given Califa a grandchild named Luca.

As we ate, Califa remarked that he was not a fan of organized religion. “If you’re the Pope, a man who drinks from a golden cup, you need to take care of your flock. How can the Pope say, `Brothers, I am with you` in a world of injustice and hunger and not do more?” I couldn’t help but notice from the streets of Ramos that there was a church that looked like a castle which rose up high in the distance.

After we ate, he said, “Let’s go for a walk.” As we walked the streets of a place most people only see as dwellings on a far-off hillside, I felt a sense of joy & appreciation for the gift God had given me in making this possible. Walking the often narrow paths through the favela, it reminded me of walking the narrow cobblestone streets of a medieval town in Italy.

We came upon a community center Califa told me was in danger of being closed. Since the government would offer no assistance in advancing the prospects of a better life for the people of the favela, 100 families there had pledged R$5. reais (US$2.75) a month to open a community center. The center offered legal assistance, beginning computer classes, and internet access. It also offered courses in mechanics, English lessons, tutoring in Portuguese, and math. A gynecologist would come to the center to offer medical and birth control information to the women of the area. It cost R$1,400. reais (US$750.) a month to keep the community center running, but there were only 60 of those initial 100 families who were still paying their small pledge (the cost of a few beers) each month, though the families of those who quit paying were still using its services.

Califa wanted to talk some more to the director of the community center, so he told Roberta and me that we could go look around and take photos in the neighborhood. He said we would be safe as there was not the crime of most favelas there since there were a couple policemen who lived in the neighborhood. He pointed to another favela across a highway and remarked, “That is where the shooting and violence takes place, where the drug lords are in control of the area.”

As Roberta and I walked through the narrow pathways, we saw a little girl about 11 sitting in a doorway wearing a T-shirt with a Brazilian flag on it. When Roberta asked if I could take a photo of her with the little girl, the girl said something in Portuguese to Roberta and left. When I asked what she had said, Roberta told me, “She said she needed to put some lipstick on.”

As Roberta and I walked, she mentioned to me that Califa would be turning 50 on October 9th, and that they were planning a surprise party for him since “turning 50 should be a special event in our lives.” I had not told Roberta that I would be turning 50 as well in a few days.

When we got back to the house, Califa happily brought out the collection of jewelry he had created. I was impressed by the intricate design and color of his versatile creations. I bought several items for myself, family members, and friends, and still only spent R$50. (US$26.). Califa and Marcia seemed very grateful for my purchase, but I was the one who was grateful for being allowed into the lives of such precious and beautiful people, and for the honor of taking away, some of Califa’s attractive creations. He insisted that I take a bracelet I liked with the Brazilian flag on it as a gift of friendship. Roberta told me later that my small purchase would put food on their table for a week!

After talking some more and admiring Califa’s creations, Marcia offered us warm chocolate cake before they walked with us to where the road led back to where we were to catch a bus back to Rio. We hugged and Califa thanked me for taking the time to visit him and his family at their home, which he assured me was now my home as well.

It wasn’t long before Roberta and I were back in the other world of a modern Rio shopping center eating generous scoops of gelato as we spoke of the wonderful day we’d just had.

A few days later, Roberta translated an e-mail Califa had sent for me expressing his gratitude for my visit and our new friendship. He also remarked, “You could have chosen to go to the beach, but instead your option was to come here to experience another reality.” He also said they were waiting for my next visit and again reminded me that their home was my home.

I was happy that I had not allowed fear from others or even myself to keep me from making this wonderful trip to Brazil happen. Often times, unjustifiable fear holds us back from realizing dreams as well as experiencing richer things in life. I was also glad I had focused on my goal to do what I could to make the meeting of an artist in a favela reality. I was not deterred by not knowing how it would unfold or by those who would discourage me from this goal. It was ironic though, that a young man behind me on the flight out of Brazil was telling the person next to him, “I was mugged a couple of times while I was in Rio.”


The day after Califa wrote this e-mail, and just four days after our visit, I arrived back in Honolulu to an e-mail from Roberta telling me that Califa had died. I was shocked at this revelation, as I would have never guessed he was that close to death during our wonderful visit with him.

Now I felt even more blessed that I was able to spend time with this wonderful man and his family, and for the opportunity to photograph him, his family, and artistic creations. Looking at the expressions on Califa’s face in the photos I took of him hugging his daughter and wife, I see an expression of love and of savoring each moment as if it were his last.

A few days later, Roberta again wrote to tell me, “Tomorrow would have been Califa’s 50th birthday. As planned, we will have a party with a cake and songs that Califa would have liked. We will also have balloons to celebrate this man’s happiness. I know he would have preferred this.”