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Dispatch from Brazil: In Alecrim

Sari Bellmer, Correspondent

12 April, 2011

Time moved in baby steps when I first arrived in Brazil. Or maybe it was just that my mind was traveling too swiftly to allow the clock to catch up. When moments are so full of new sounds, smells, sights, and thoughts, a whole day’s worth of information seems to span an eternity. At least that’s how it was when I arrived in Brazil.

One of the roads deliniating the Alecrim community

Days are moving swiftly now, I take this as a good sign that I am acclimating and assimilating all of my sensory encounters. I am just now finally feeling as though I’m actually beginning to grasp Portuguese. Admittedly, I underestimated the time it would take me to learn this language and the experience has humbled me, for all I can do is try my best to get my points across, knowing that often I sound a complete fool. Nonetheless, it’s becoming more and more often that I listen to someone speak and realize after that I understood almost all of what they said. These moments are liberating and celebrative, and the only reason I haven’t reached ultimate dissuasion.

Aside from Portuguese, the topics I’m studying in Brazil are public health, human rights, and race, and the last couple weeks in Salvador have been occupied with visits to hospitals, clinics, NGOs and research centers. Brazil has a public healthcare system, but each institution has had its own unique character. We went one afternoon to a clinic that specialized in tuberculosis treatment and although the doctors were knowledgeable and the lab was adequate, I was alarmed by how crowded, loud, hot, and seemingly dirty the facility was. The other students and I sat in on consultations with several TB patients, one was nearly finished with treatment and looked very healthy; a couple others were still in the middle of therapy and their bodies showed the signs of their disease. Yesterday we visited a maternity hospital, where we saw many tiny and beautiful babies and brand-new mothers. While touring the Maternidade we were led silently into a viewing room, where we found ourselves looking through glass windows down at an operating room. We were all shocked to see a woman lying on an operating table below, naked and exposed with a bandage on her lower abdomen where she had apparently just received a caesarian section. Practices to ensure confidentiality here have been questionable at best; it was even more disconcerting when it became clear that both surgeon and patient were fairly displeased to see in the observation window a group of strangers wearing street clothes, wide-eyed and confused. There, we also toured the breast milk bank, an equally interesting but less dramatic experience. The bank is a program that collects donated human-milk, tests it for safety, and then distributes it to infants in need, such as premature babies or infants at risk of contracting disease—such as HIV—from their own mother’s breast milk.

Dancing Samba de Roda with a Brazilian boy in Alecrim

Last week we returned from a trip to a small village a couple hours away from Salvador, to see how the public healthcare system works in the rural regions. The village we stayed in was a group of about 2,000 people living in a network of dirt roads called Alecrim. In Alecrim we saw children playing Capoeira, spoke with the town’s healer, walked among avocado, mango, and caju (cashew) trees, ate sugarcane, and danced Samba de Roda at a festa that the people of Alecrim threw for us. The families in Alecrim welcomed us with such joy and love that I left this place sobbing. While trying to piece together sentences of gratitude in incoherent Portuguese, I found hugs and kisses and tears all around, men and women alike. The vibrancy that I saw in the people of Alecrim, the community involvement and support that was so apparent there, was something that took me by surprise while at the same time satisfying all the hopes and expectations that I carried with me to Brazil.

Contact information:
Saralyn Bellmer
A/C Damiana de Miranda
Avenida Sete de Setembro
No. 62, Salas 616 & 301
Dois de Julho, Salvador, Bahia, Brasil
40060-001

Check it out: I’m in Brazil sponsored in part by the Benjamin Gilman Foundation, which provides scholarships for students studying abroad internationally. Interested? http://www.iie.org/en/Programs/Gilman-Scholarship-Program

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