The Crazy Brazilian

While we’re on the subject of Brazilians, I should tell you about Claudio because he is by far the loudest and craziest of them all.   This is a picture of him sitting on our balcony making a wormery out of disused olive tubs we found in the bins at Borough Market.  He likes to improvise.

 Claudio came to stay earlier this year and taught us how to make wicking beds from recycled styrofoam boxes to grow veggies in, and our own small wormery.  He is a radical urban agriculturalist and spends heaps of his time teaching people to make simple equipment to help them live in a way that is more sustainable and connected to the earth.  In the city.

He lives in Curitiba in Brazil and leads a small Christian community there called Casa da Vidiera.  An unusual one. They have chickens.  15 breeds.  And goats. Everyday they collect food waste from their neighbourhood, three to four tons of organic waste a month—the refuse of roughly 150 households—and compost it all in their 0.08 acre backyard, turning it into beautiful soil.

The chickens eat food scraps and worms, rather than soybeans, which is one of Brazil’s most destructive monocrops. 68% of Brazil’s crops, including soybeans, are now genetically-modified, so choosing not to use soy is a small act of resistance against that way of agriculture.

On top of that, they have a community bakery and grow edible mushrooms from used coffee grounds, and they’re starting a new program carbon sequestering using biochar (he insists it’s a simple technology we can all reproduce!).

I love it because instead of just shrugging his shoulders and saying, ‘well, we live in the inner-city, we don’t have much outside space, what can you do?’, he has found ways to live better: to grow stuff (even if you only have a balcony), and deal with waste rather than just throwing everything “out” as if “out” is some place that we have no responsibility for.  (I am haunted by this challenge).

However, when he got back to Brazil from the UK earlier this year, he found out that a new neighbour had reported their community to the police, because keeping livestock in the inner-city isn’t exactly legal….It looked like they might have to stop everything.

So the authorities came to visit.  When they arrived and saw the plants and animals they were amazed.  Claudio explained the science of what they did and how the Food Security department had invited them to give workshops for other urban farmers about rubbish management and urban agriculture. The visitors didn’t know what to say, so they told Claudio to write a letter to the Hygiene department, and they’d put in a good word…

So the community are keeping at it.  They eat together every week (usually their own produce), and collect rubbish, and tend to their animals and plants, which is very different to my daily reality.  My wormery is still going strong though, and there’s some lovely soil developing.  My wicking bed is great, and I even have some tomatoes growing.

*If you’d like to hear Claudio reflect on life, food, gardening and theology a good place to start is with the films here (if he’s not on the front page any more, just search for Claudio). He also has a great recipe for banana peel bread if you’re interested?!*

The woman in the photo

(or A small story of good things growing)

The woman caught on camera in the photo above is our friend Lucia, who is also from Brazil, but she’s been living for years in the same block of flats as us, in South London.  I wanted to put a photo of where we live on the blog header, because I didn’t want to give the sense that ‘the good stuff’ only happens in other places.  Our block of flats is probably the primary place where we’re trying to live out a good story.   I stumbled across this photo on my search, which was taken the day of our block BBQ last summer.  Lucia was in her usual place, out on the balcony, watering the plants.

Since we moved in, Lucia has, almost single-handedly, been responsible for the beautiful jungle of plants all along our balcony.  She never asks if you want flowers outside your flat; they just appear and are nurtured by her daily. (It’s fair to say not everyone loved that).

We spent our first married Christmas with Lucia, and a few other friends.  She came over at lunchtime and in no time at all had demolished our entire collection of biscuits.  She soon launched into Andy’s maltesers, and was too full for Christmas dinner.  But she happily stayed on and watched the rest of us tuck in.

Early this year,  Lucia left our neighbourhood and went into full-time care, because her Alzheimers was getting worse and she couldn’t look after herself anymore.  She’s now down on the south coast near her son.

A lot of the plants died or were cleared away when she left.  But over the spring and summer, something has happened in our block which makes me feel like Lucia has left something of herself behind.  Some of our neighbours have started growing vegetables for the first time (including us, and another couple who had never taken kindly to Lucia’s aggressive horticulture) – quite a feat when all we have is the communal balcony  in the photo.  About four or five new families have moved in and started planting things.  It’s not quite like it was, but it’s getting there.  And people are sharing plants, and tips, and stories of dying herbs (actually it’s mainly just my herbs that are dying – any life left is due only to my next door neighbour Frank who waters them far more regularly than me).

Which is just a small thing, but one that is growing in the right direction.

why I am starting a blog

My friend Gabriel wrote a recent blog called “why even introverts should mouth off online“. In essence, he says that we live in a participative world, and “by talking up the good, we allow it flourish a little longer.”

That seems like a good idea, I thought. I’d like to be part of that.

I work part-time for Tearfund, an organisation working to address poverty and injustice around the world. They send me places and I meet extraordinary people. I collect stories and try to spread them round a bit, infecting whoever I can with a double dose of reality and hope.

The other thing I do is put stories on the stage. I’m part of a theatre company called The Ruby Dolls, and we write and perform our own material, telling stories that we think matter. They’re different kinds of stories, admittedly, but there are common threads. The importance of journey, hope, creativity, compassion and living a good story.

So I find myself with many stories, and a lot of them are about the good stuff. It’s time to share more of them, I reckon. And I’ll start with the story I come back to most often.

In 2006, I went on one of my first trips with Tearfund, to north-east Brazil. Almost the first place we visited was a large church in the city of Recife. Right opposite the church was a favela (shanty town/slum), and a dangerous one. By the age of about 12, most boys were pimps, and most girls were prostitutes. There was no sanitation, there were no roads. The church had been there for years – it was a fancy old building in good condition, mainly filled with middle-class Christians who assembled on a Sunday and then left and went home again, without setting foot in the favela. I met three beautiful and courageous women in that church, called Marta, Marcia and Katya; they were probably about 30 and had joined the church some months earlier after finishing at a Christian college. For some reason, it seemed unthinkable to those three women that they would stay away from the favela and still call themselves Christians. So they went in. Against everyone’s advice. Three single women, the same age I am now. They met kids, and mums, and started a kids club.

When we were there we walked round the favela with them and their friends from the community. We were welcomed into houses held together by corrugated tin and wire. Just behind the favela were flashy new skyscrapers.

Despite that gaping inequality (not Brazil’s finest achievement), things were starting to change in the community by then. The kids work had grown (I witnessed a hall full of hundreds of kids singing and dancing), education was improving, and there was a project working with mums too. What’s more, the government had decided that if these three women could go into the favela then maybe they could too. So they were building roads and installing a sewage system.

I have returned to that story so many times in the last five years because it leaves me with a huge question. I have no reason to think that any of the people in that church were bad people, or insincere, or uncommitted. So why did the action of these three women come as  such a surprise to the church? And moreover,what makes me into the kind of person who will walk, with my friends, into a favela when it scares me and everyone tells us not to, rather than staying inside my church (or whatever symbolises my nice safe life lived alongside people just like me)? What makes me into the kind of person who can imagine things changing (despite the naysayers), and who has the courage to try to be part of that process?

The best answer I can come up with is that I have to keep searching out the stories of people who live courageously, imaginatively and compassionately, in the hope that they rub off on me, in the hope that my heart and my imagination keep expanding, not contracting. I need stories of people who are just like me but making braver choices, and stories of people whose life experience is a million miles away from what I know.

So this blog is in the world to talk up the good. I want to spread stories about the good stuff, so you hear about more of it and have a little more hope for the world. But I’m also doing it for my own sake, in the hope that it might just draw a bit more of the good stuff out of me.