Brazil 2014 Week 2: “Once We Start, We Don’t Stop!”

FINALLY the chance has come to read about our second week in Brazil. The team headed off to the first construction weekend in São Rafael!


a long way from cambridge

It was 5 AM. The Arctic Monkeys blared out at full volume from a laptop and a school full of fifty bleary eyed TETO volunteers were no longer asleep.  It was the first day of construction for the volunteers, the EcoHouse team and five families from the São Rafael favela. As we hauled ourselves out of our sleeping bags and into our TETO T-shirts and work books, I felt a very long way from home – despite the familiar northern voices singing in the background.

We split into our teams and the pep talks began – even though they were in Portuguese, I knew had to give “120%”. Apparently motivational clichés are the same across the continents. We marched down to the favela and got stuck in – quite literally for some. Becky and Jeremy arrived at their plot to find it was flooded with sewage. They had to squelch through it in order to dig the foundations of the house. The sewage seemed to be pouring out of a neighbour’s pipe, but requests for them to fix it (from both the family living on the flooded plot and TETO) proved unfruitful.

Every team spent the first day digging the foundations for the new houses – 15 holes for 15 wooden piles. We hacked through bits of concrete, brick, plastic bags, sheets of cotton wool, discarded T-shirts and in one instance, a buried electrical cable – that didn’t go down too well! It was a long way from the soft soil of Clare College Cambridge, where we’d built our prototype.

The favela São Rafael is situated underneath electricity pylons. Members of the community have told TETO that when it rains heavily in the favela they get electric shocks off each other! Because of this, TETO chose to use a different, non-metal roof in São Rafael. We also found it a lot easier to carry, as it wasn’t sharp and didn’t get as hot as the normal roof.


Clockwise from bottom left: digging the pile holes; one of the plots for the TETO houses; a volunteer scooping stones out of a pile hole

Mud, mud, glorious mud!


the complexities of the favela

The construction weekend is an intensive two days, in which teams of 8 volunteers each put together a house. This is the culmination of 3 months of TETO working towards the construction together with the families, who each sign a contract with TETO promising to help them with the process. Some of them joined the construction teams and others cooked huge vats of rice and beans for the hungry volunteers. For TETO, having the families’ full involvement is key to the success of the project.

Housing is just one of many practical problems and social issues in these communities, which make them unpredictable places to work. In the contract between TETO and the families, TETO specifies that the family must comply to certain rules, or TETO cannot build a house for them. This ranges from the families knocking down their current house to make space for their new one and promising not to be intoxicated on the day of construction, to promising not to sell the house to another family after construction. Most families meet these requirements, actively participating in the construction process. However, it is not uncommon that constructions are interrupted or even stopped because these criteria have not been fulfilled. We experienced an extreme example of this first hand in São Rafael. The construction of one of the houses had to be abandoned on the second day after the tools TETO had stored in the family’s house went missing. A member of the family had allegedly sold the tools overnight to pay for his drug addiction.

In these situations, TETO will continue to work with the family to try to fully understand why they have broken the agreement. Often they are able to negotiate with the family, determine that they are really interested in fully committing to the project and then they can continue to work with them. However, we were told that this is not always possible. “We have to respect these people’s decisions as adults”, a TETO director told us.


Finishing off the piles

“Another world”

In the evenings the volunteers sat together discussing the situation in the favelas and TETO’s approach to its work. The volunteers described the favela as “a different world”. Somewhere with its own set of rules and a completely different way of life to anything we have ever experienced. Every day members of the community face impossible choices, forced upon them by their situation.

TETO has a developed a new method of working, where they avoid actively suggesting ideas for projects to the community. TETO want the community to identify what’s best for themselves. They have also started to work with the communities on a more long term basis, sending teams into the communities every week and really building up a relationship with the residents. Since their work has shifted to this more long term, social focus, they have seen fewer instances of constructions falling through, or people selling their TETO houses on to others soon after the completion of construction.


Beccky and Jonny

Go Becky, go!

On Sunday night raced to finish the houses before dark. By torchlight we put the last nails in the roof and screwed in the hinges for the doors and windows. We ended the weekend with four complete houses and fifty very grubby volunteers jumping up and down in the middle of the favela, shouting “Começou, não para! Começou, não para! Começou, não para!”- “Once we start, we don’t stop!”.

Just two days later we revisited the community with a TETO volunteer. Simone, the woman whose house I worked on, told us she used to sleep with four blankets but now she only needs one. We visited another of the new houses belonging to Dirce, who lives there with her two nephews. In two days she had the place fully wired up, she had installed net curtains, carpets and even a kitchen sink! Just two days before she had been living in a house in which water poured in every time it rained. I felt like I was in an episode of DIY SOS, happy ending included. Though I had keen sense that there was still a lot going on behind the scenes.

That’s it for now from the Brazil team, but look out for more blogs coming soon!