Resilience on the edge of the city

By Heidi Käfer, April 2023

How the Waldorf school Escola de Resilência in São Paulo creates an oasis for young people from the favela and how with Steiner it emancipates itself from him is described by our reporter, who is currently in Brazil for a few months.

As the train slowly moves away from São Paulo's city centre, grey prefabricated buildings with colourful flashing Christmas lights and full washing lines in front of unfinished brick buildings pass by me. I only have a vague picture of the place where I will spend the next few hours. Blocky school buildings, dusty dry earth maybe, concrete? Unwelcome stereotypes that come to mind. Hopefully I will have the opportunity to talk to people about their story. Hopefully no one will feel they have to pretend when I, the German who works in the place where so much financial support comes from, visit. On the roadside there are fruit shops and car repair workshops, hairdressers and butchers behind open garage doors. Close beside me, a frail man pedals his rusty bike up the hill under a scorching sun, whom I leave behind in the pleasantly air-conditioned Uber taxi. A few hills later, grey and terracotta red, stone and plastic, suddenly give way to different shades of green – giant copal and flame trees – as we pass a drinking water reservoir.

It is the rainy season and there is tension in the air: the sticky heat and dramatic clouds suggest heavy rain. We are approaching Horizonte Azul, a district of over 30,000 inhabitants on the outskirts of São Paulo. This is one of the three locations of the Associação Comunitária Monte Azul, which was founded in 1978 by Waldorf teacher Ute Kraemer in the favela of the same name. The Waldorf school in Monte Azul was the first for favela children in Brazil. They often leave school after year four as functionally illiterate. Crime and insecurity are part of everyday life. Besides schools, kindergartens and crèches, Monte Azul also includes two anthroposophical birth centres, the only ones in the whole country. (In 2015, 56 percent of newborns in Brazil were born by caesarean section – more than in any other country).

Arriving at the school gate, I meet Mario, a small man with a friendly face. Mario is a Waldorf teacher and board member of the association. Parents and staff walk past us, there is the smell of hearty food. The small incline behind the entrance gate still blocks my view. I still have no idea what kind of oasis I am about to enter. "It will definitely take us two hours until you have seen everything. The school grounds are huge and spread over several properties!" As we walk up the incline, I have the impression of being in a small village. The site of the school is a former farm. Small colourful stone huts are lined up next to each other, housing offices and administration. A singing kindergarten teacher with a herd of small children weaves her way between the former stables. They all hold on to a rope one behind the other and walk past us, warbling in the shade of the trees. "Bom dia!", the gnomes call out to us. And immediately two girls jump off the swing and run towards us with open arms. One of them hugs me and asks, "Você é da Alemanha?" - "Are you from Germany?" The exchange with Germans is common here, I suppose. "Sim!" I reply with a grin.

Children from middle-class families often attend private schools. The same is true for the majority of pupils in the more than eighty Waldorf schools in Brazil. The majority of pupils at private and Waldorf schools are white and move in a bubble, at least in the school environment. The 180 children who are taught at the Escola de Resilência are from very different ethnic backgrounds. Many of the kindergarten children and pupils have African ancestry and are viewed as black. Although Brazil is an extremely ethnically diverse country due to its indigenous and colonial history, it is nevertheless and precisely for this reason also a massively racist one, where people often experience violence and exclusion from social participation because of their skin colour. The fact that the proportion of the black population is higher in favelas and poorer communities like Horizonte Azul than in the wealthier neighbourhoods of São Paulo is a consequence of this history.

We turn off and walk towards a pretty little house with a veranda. Directly behind it is a forest garden with plenty of green space. Next to the entrance door there is a sign "primer ano" – "year one". There is a lesson going on, Mario takes me into the classroom. My attention is immediately drawn to the beautiful mandala on the blackboard, the walls are bathed in warm antique pink, the solid tropical wood floor creaks. The classroom actually fills the whole hut, a kitchenette with a full fruit bowl where children can help themselves included. Curiously, there is a leather bag hanging from each chair that appears to have been sewn by each child themselves, Faber-Castell crayons are sticking out of the colourful pencil cases. Mario notices my surprise at the familiar Waldorf accessories and comments that there is also something neo-colonial about the export of Waldorf education to Brazil.  I think again of the flashing lights, snowmen and candy sticks on the way here, the sight of which irritated me so much in 30 degrees Celsius. Are German sagas and legends also taught in lessons? What about local traditional knowledge? The time had come, Mario adds, to take a step forwards with the basic building blocks of the holistic Waldorf philosophy, which sees the human being behind their cultural garb, and at the same time to appreciate one's own cultural knowledge. The mood is lively, practising letters is the order of the day and it seems as if play and interaction are more important right now than tracing the alphabet sitting still.

It's almost time for the breakfast break, and the focus gradually gives way to the rumbling of stomachs. After we have said goodbye to the class to get to know more parts of the school, I get the impression that play and freedom in a protected space determine the spirit of the whole place. The children and young people are mostly outside, they move around, there is one day a week when the entire lesson takes place in the school garden, home-grown food is prepared and eaten together. What I see here clearly challenges my personal concept of school. And it inspires me. I think I understand what lifelong learning can mean in such an environment. Especially when the reality outside is so extremely different from school. As an example, Mario mentions what the children learn about nutrition at school. Only vegetarian food was eaten, with the exception of the crèche. This  was provided by the municipality and was therefore subject to its regulations, which stipulate that young children eat everything. Ecological awareness was less pronounced there. "Brazilians constantly eat meat, and far too much of it. With the thinking that is learned here with us, something is being changed," he comments.

We cross the road to get to the ecological garden. Animating bass booms from the gym next door, lorries drive past us. A few steps further on, Mario unlocks a gate. A wealth of shrubs and tall trees, lush, fragrant greenery and warm, humid air overwhelm me. On a narrow path we wander through the forest garden between coconut palms, maize and cassava bushes, cotton and papaya trees. Crickets chirp, birds and butterflies flutter around, chickens and geese rest in the shade. Since the 1950s, São Paulo has grown dramatically into an ever-expanding metropolis, with natural green spaces giving way to more and more housing developments. In the 1980s, the Monte Azul Association bought the school grounds and today the Escola de Rêsilencia site is located in the middle of a densely populated concrete landscape. It thus ensures the preservation of a patch of nature that would otherwise have been built on a long time ago.

In the distance, a wide shelter juts out from behind the banana trees. Smoke rises, there is a scent of burning wood and strong coffee. A young man is carving a wooden sculpture in the background, next to him are several expressive works of art – portraits of peasant women, sculptures with indigenous art. A group of Guaraní was invited to Horizonte Azul to build the shelter. Guaraní are the largest indigenous group in Brazil, at about 51,000. Many of them now live confined to reservations, under threat from violent cattle ranchers. The traditional dwellings of the Guaraní are made of bamboo. The group shared its skills, passed down over centuries from one generation to the next, with people in Horizonte Azul. The watertight roof is made of split bamboo canes that overlap and are threaded across a bamboo framework.

School here is not separated from life in the community, Mario explains to me. Maybe that's exactly what school is supposed to be. He calls this place an "aldea contemporânea", a "contemporary indigenous settlement": ecological awareness should not only be a privilege of the socially better-off, just as little as protection from violence, a loving environment, a right to fresh air and proximity to nature. These are values that the indigenous people of Brazil have always fought for, in the face of threats to their and all our natural habitats. With its guidelines and practices, the school harks back to these values, which do not see the human being as split off from nature.

At first I wondered why the school in Horizonte Azul was called the School of Resilience and not another name, why it was resilience that was to be internalised here and carried to the outside world. That's when I remembered the work of an anthropologist called Nancy Scheper-Hughes, who has written several ethnographies about a favela in north-eastern Brazil. The central theme of her research was resilience strategies of favela residents whose lives were marked by violence, death and poverty. Scheper-Hughes defined psychological resilience as essential for survival in the favela. I wonder how the pupils at the Escola de Rêsilencia learn this resilience. And I have the impression that it is nothing less than the connection with nature, with other living beings and themselves, with diversity that is taken-for-granted, and with learning a healthy way of dealing with everything we inhabit – mind, body, earth – that makes the children here not only resilient, but capable of action and self-efficacy.

The Monte Azul Association is dependent on financial support. You can support its important work here:

Heidi Käfer, born 1990, ethnologist (MA), member of the Erziehungskunst editorial team. She has worked for many years in the fields of intercultural education and refugee and human rights work.


No comments

Add comment

* - required field