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A Day in the Life on a Landless Camp

By Aaron M. Smith

ARAXA, Brazil – The sign above the entrance was worn and tattered, but it proudly proclaimed who was inside the broken-down gate: “The people of Liga Cambonese.”

I remember thinking about the word “people” in that sign. When was the last time they were treated like people, I thought. When was the last time someone looked at them as such? I wondered if they put that word on the sign purposely to remind visitors.

The men, women and children of Liga Cambonese – a landless camp near Araxa in the state of Minas Gerais – speckled the fields of rice, beans and corn, waiving as we drove slowly up the winding, red-dirt road. The camp is home to 56 families, living in wooden tents with black plastic walls and tin roofs, used only as a place to keep shelter from the blazing sun, to sleep or to hold community meetings.

The agenda that day was to spend time visiting individually with some of the families at the camp, and then to attend a community meeting so that the people of Liga Cambonese could speak to me about life on their camp.

Murilo, Sebastiao and I pulled down the lane to visit our first family. Before we could get out of the car, a tall boy smiled and welcomed us to his home. Murilo and Sebastiao went off to talk with the boy’s parents and I stayed back to try to communicate with him.

“Hello,” the boy said, speaking in his best English. “My name is Jean.”

“Hello,” I said back. “My name is Aaron. You speak English well.”

He smiled and shook his head.

“Do you like soccer?” I asked.

Jean didn’t reply, contorting his face, trying to understand what I said.

“I mean, do you like futbol?” I asked again, kicking my feet to help explain what I meant.

The smile on Jean’s face told me he understood, and that he did indeed like the sport.

I motioned for him to follow me and we walked back to the car. I had brought several multi-colored soccer balls with me from the United States and I knew Jean would love to have one to play with at his camp.

I opened the trunk of the car and pulled out the flattened ball along with the pump. Jean’s eyes widened and a smile shot across his face. As I was pumping air into the ball, Jean went to get his younger brother, Wenderson. By the time they arrived back at the car, I had fully filled the ball. I spun it shortly on my fingers and tossed the ball to Jean.

Immediately, Jean began kicking the ball, keeping it in air with several short kicks, preventing the ball from touching the ground. I was thoroughly impressed. Up until now, he had been practicing with a soccer ball made of straw and weeds, wrapped tightly to resemble a sphere. This was the first real soccer ball he had played with and he knew exactly what to do with it.

Jean continued kicking the ball around and then passed it back to me. He put up his fingers and motioned circles with his other hand, wanting me to spin the ball on my fingers like I did before I gave him the ball. I tried my best to duplicate the trick and he smiled again.

“Here,” I said giving the ball back to Jean. I did the same motion with my fingers and hand. “You try.”

Jean smiled and tried to spin the ball on his index finger. The ball made one rotation and fell to the dirty ground. He laughed and tried again. Jean couldn’t master the trick so he went back to showing off his amazing footwork.

I was really starting to like this kid. It was hard for me to look over at his plastic, tattered home and then to look over at his beaming smile. What was going on in his mind, I thought. How could he stand there and be so excited and so happy? This was one of the first times during my trip that I saw happiness from the landless. I had expected pain and depression, but his smile and his energy were far from what I had anticipated. I hoped that I was at least part of the reason he was smiling.

After kicking the ball back and forth for a few minutes in the blazing heat, Jean’s nose began to bleed. A stream of plum-red liquid crawled down his face and dripped to the ground. He ran to the tent and got an old dirty shirt to stop the bleeding. I learned from Murilo’s translation that Jean had a condition that affected him when he got overheated. He constantly got bloody noses when out in the sun for long periods of time. I’m sure he had plenty of them considering the temperature of that late summer day had reached into the mid-90s.

Jean’s mother hurried to a well filled with dirt-brown water and floating insects. She pulled up a cup of water and washed Jean’s face. I could tell Jean was embarrassed as he took his bloodied shirt and went inside his plastic house. I wanted to do something for him. At that point, I wished I could take him home with me.

Before we left Jean’s house, he hurried out of the tent and caught up with us. He held out the soccer ball as if to give it back to me.

I looked at Murilo and told him to tell Jean that the ball was for him to keep. Murilo passed along the message and Jean pulled back the ball, smiled and held out his hand. I shook it and smiled back.

“He wants your autograph on the ball,” Murilo said, smiling.

I was stunned. I felt honored. I took out my pen as he held out the ball again. I wrote, “To Jean from Aaron. God bless you. Obrigado.”

My heart pounded as I gave him back the ball and saw how genuinely happy he was with the gift. I smiled, gave him a hug and got into the car. I will never forget Jean.

Murilo, Sebastiao and I continued visiting tent after plastic tent, visiting with families who had nothing but hot coffee brewing and sacks of grain they had recently harvested. We pulled up to the meeting tent where the people from the community had been gathering for a while. The tent was packed and many had crowded around outside.

Murilo looked at me.

“They’re gathering here because of you, you know,” he said. “It’s not often that an American comes down to visit them. This is a big deal for them.”

It made me feel very calm about being there. It gave me a warm feeling and made me forget the thoughts of the horrible conditions they had to live in day in and day out. I forgot about the material items they had or did not have and I focused on the people. I focused on the personalities.

Once everyone gathered, Murilo stood up and spoke in Portuguese, introducing me to the camp. Then he asked if I wanted to say anything.

I sat up and began talking.

“First of all, I would like to thank you all for inviting me into your houses and for feeding me such good food,” I said. “I am a journalist from the United States and I am visiting you to see how you live and to write about you. My goal is to tell your stories to people in the United States. I hope they are as inspired by all of you as I am. I hope that these stories can raise awareness and that the generous people will donate money to APR so they can help you all down here. Thanks again for having me. God bless you.”

Murilo translated to them and they stood up and cheered and clapped. I smiled politely, but felt a little uncomfortable. I wasn’t doing anything great. They were. They were working so hard with next to no reward. They loved and took care of their families without asking anything in return. They worked together instead of bickering. They fought for what they believed in.

I should have been clapping and cheering for them.

Murilo instructed the people who had gathered to stand up and tell a little about themselves and about life at their camp. Everyone looked around not wanting to be the first to speak.

A younger-looking man, who appeared to be in his mid-to-late 20s, stood up and introduced himself as Fidelcino.

“Life here in this camp is a difficult life,” he said through Murilo’s translation. “The people here have good will and courage to fight for this land that we are on. It has been a struggle. A lot of us came from the city where there is a lot of suffering. You have bad habits in the city. Here, on this land, we are free from those habits. But we have other challenges here. We fight for a piece of land. We fight so our sons and daughters can have some dignity. We fight because we want a good life.”

After Fidelcino stood up, I could see that the fire had been lit. The people nodded, clapped and sat up tall while he spoke. And then they lined up, each wanting to tell their story, each wanting to release their pain simply by speaking to someone who would listen.

Normino was second to speak.

“Our life here is suffering,” he said. “The things you see today are only a small part. It was once very bad. Now we have people helping us like APR. People come here from the city where they did drugs and worked as prostitutes just to pay for something to eat. Now we work hard, but the land is not ours. We want this land. We want to prove that we can produce crops and we want to work. We just want to work. We want a real life.”

Normino was tall with tattered shorts and a light blue button-down shirt. His glasses were heavy and were probably not the right prescription. He looked over at his young son, placing his hand on his head.

“This little one was starving in the city,” he said, starting to stumble over his words. “It hurts to go hungry, but it hurts even more to have your child ask you for food and you can’t find him any. We fight for these kids. We fight to give them land and to give them an education. We suffer now so they won’t have to when they grow up.”

Each person took their turn to speak. Many said the same thing or told the same story as someone before them. But each one felt a sense of relief to get up and tell their story. And with every story, the rest of the people were still attentive – nodding, clapping and being one of a very close and productive community.

I wanted to do a story on the role of women in these landless communities, so I asked Helenice – a leader of this landless camp – what her thoughts on how the camp affects the women and what their role was at the camp. I was not prepared for her poignant response.

“Life on this camp is the same for everyone,” she said. “Everyone suffers here. A man suffers here. A woman suffers here. Children suffer here. We all suffer the same. We are all equal. Women help men. Men help women. Our fight is the same. Our suffering is the same.”

Helenice wrapped up that story angle in just a few powerful sentences. I was impressed with her poise, her confidence and her ability to make her point so profoundly. She went on to tell me how they had been on the camp for three years now, waiting ever so patiently for the government to grant them the papers necessary to stay on the land permanently.

“We will work hard as a group every day,” she said. “We look at this like it is our land. It is a slow process, but what else do we have to do? We need to be organized and work together. Everyone wants to work here and we will continue to do that every day.”

An older man – Carlos – with silver, grizzled hair stood up to speak about the production at the camp. He took off his worn hat and smiled.

“Our production, it was very good,” he said. “We’re ready to plant again and we hope everything will be good. Murilo can feel satisfied that he helped us and the other camps to have good crops. We give back to APR so they can help other camps. Their help is so very important to us. They help us to do the right thing. They take the suffering out of the people’s lives and they bring them happiness.

“Little bit by little bit, we can do very much,” Carlos continued. “We plant corn with the faith of God. We plant all our food with the faith of God. We don’t want to take from anyone. We want to work, we just want to survive.”

Helio, another farmer stood up next. He spoke of the dangers of living on the land of wealthy landowners.

“One night a couple years ago, people came with guns and fired 100 times into the sky to try and scare us,” he said. “Not even that will make us give up our struggle. They can try and make us leave and sometimes they can force us to leave this land and start over. But we are not going to leave without a fight. Only God knows if we’ll stay here. We want to stay here and have a decent life.”

I was touched by how many people wanted to tell their story and I was touched by what they said. In all, 24 people stood up to talk. It was incredible to hear the passion in their tired voices. Despite their suffering, they were happy to be fighting for their rights to the land, for their rights to the most basic of human needs.

Everyone who spoke inspired me. Everyone who sat quietly, but attentively inspired me.

In reality, they were very much just like me. We both want dignity. We want respect. We want a home we can call our own. We want to work and have an identity in this world.

The difference is: I have been blessed with the opportunities to accomplish these goals.

They’re still waiting for someone to give them a chance.

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