How it all began – My parents are both from this region around the village of Montalvânia, in the north of the state of Minas Gerais, but have lived in Brasilia since the early 70’s. That’s where I was born and raised. Eight years ago, before he died, my grandfather left a little piece of land to each of his 14 children. To my father fell this piece of untouched savana-like vegetation, wild and beautiful, where this week a jaguar killed two sheep.
The caretakers – Because my parents still have their jobs in Brasilia, they hire a family to live on the farm, so that there is always someone there. Anita makes sure the house is always clean, and Ze takes care of the field and the animals. Their three children, Antonio (15), Cielza (13), and Ze Nilton (10) bus to school and back every day, a two-hour ride each way.
Comfort and Discomfort – I didn’t use to like going to the countryside, because it’s very different from our city life, very rough and uncomfortable. Nowadays I find it rough and extremely interesting. The discomfort is still there, but I found that pretending it doesn’t exist doesn’t make it run away.
I spent a week there last week, and with no internet, no telephone, no television, no roads, nowhere to go, I got a lot of schoolwork done. Some reading, some writing, lots of thinking.
Between a rock and a hard place – When I last visited, eighteen months ago, she didn’t use to help her mom yet. She was a child. But now, in this place where mothers are made at the age of 15, she’s already a grown-up. This change is also noticed by my parents. We look at each other wondering whether the right thing to do is not allow her to help her mom with the dishes. Or perhaps, since she was as busy as her mom, to pay her a day’s wage, thus helping with the family’s income. But children should be playing and studying, not working – it’s even illegal for us to hire someone under 14 years of age. On the other hand, isn’t it slavery to have someone work without pay? We were between a rock and a hard place. But so is everyone over there. Much more so.
Family Business – The intricacies of the situation are many, and all very serious. Part of the problem is that the family actually live with us, their kitchen is our kitchen. It may seem that to allow this girl to do the dishes for us is to support child labour. On the other hand, at the age of 13 I too (and my brother, though that met with much more resistance) helped my parents with the dishes and small chores around the house. I don’t feel we’re the worse for that, on the contrary. Now, if back then someone had reprehended my parents for having us do the dishes, I think it would be none of their business – nosy interference in a family’s private life.
But Cielza’s family live with us. Our home is at the same time their home and their workplace. And they’re better off for it, they feel privileged for it, and the families around us envy them for it. It is good for them and it’s good for us.
The house negro and the field negro – It’s like the story I forget which famous writer wrote about the house negro and the field negro. The house slave´s life is not as rough as the field slave´s. House slaves tasks are lighter, they eat from the master´s table, they wear the master´s old clothes, they get to know the master´s family and even gain their confidence and friendship. But it´s still not their house.
Dilemma – In the case of Cielza, we don´t actually want her to be doing the work. It was her family who decided, not ours. And this is a family we like and respect, as they like and respect us. But my family does not at all share the belief which is dominant in these parts (cf. the crib story) that children should work to help with the family´s income. On the other hand, when you´re very poor, you don´t really have that many options.
In a situation like this, where do you draw the line between fairness and interference? The whole situation is unfair whatever angle you look at it.
To be continued…