Although almost half the population has some African ancestry, Brazilian schools do a poor job of teaching about African history, culture and the heritage of Afro-Brazilians. Abdu Ferraz is helping schools as well as businesses to embrace a more positive image of Africa and the opportunities it presents.
The New Idea
Abdu attacks the racial preconceptions present in Brazilian society about African history and culture. Seeing how difficult it was to generate public debate about race and discrimination, Abdu created the Program for Ethnic and Cultural Links (PLEC) to work with children, adolescents, and businesses. Abdu offers after school courses for children and workshops for the reformulation of the educational system to train teachers in African history. With the realization that children spend a majority of their after school hours with their grandparents who baby-sit them while their parents are at work, to complement his efforts in the schools, Abdu also works with these grandparents to teach them about African culture and history that they can share with their grandchildren. Through the grandparents, he is able to enter in the family nucleus and further break the negative stereotypes about African heritage.In addition to his work with children and adolescents, Abdu targets the business sector. Initially, he sought to increase commercial and cultural relations between Africa and Brazil by working with companies interested in the African economy. He also contributed to the increase of Brazilian demand for African products and services, which helped generate wages for African immigrants. Abdu believes that after being exposed to elements of other cultures, it is possible to ease the cultural separation between Africa and Brazil and encourage them to work together to increase their strength in international commerce.
Slavery, practiced from the first half of the 16th century to 1888, set the historical pattern of institutionalized racism in Brazil. The identity of the Afro-Brazilian, who at over 80 million strong make up almost half the population, has always been strongly linked to the history of slavery and the notion of inferiority of the black race. The exclusion and lack of power caused by racial discrimination is present in various aspects of Afro-Brazilian life. Statistics from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics from 2003 confirm that black people earn on average half the salary of white people and barely 2 percent of the black population go to college. This social context contributes to the perpetuation of the process of exclusion of more than half the Brazilian population.In 2003 the government passed a law requiring schools to teach African history, yet many schools have yet to comply or to teach about Africa in a positive way. Brazilian schools tend to teach about African history and culture in a way that gives students a bad impression of Africa. This is a real problem for black students, who may leave the classroom with a negative stereotype of their own culture, heritage, and communities. Part of the problem is that teachers simply have not been trained in this subject.Business too fails to give Africa the importance it deserves. Brazil seeks to become a global actor in international commerce, and therefore cannot afford to ignore Africa’s commercial and political significance. Although trade between Brazil and Africa has increased in the last couple of years, relations are still underdeveloped and more could be done. Commerce in Africa in 2004 represented barely 7 percent of trade while the European Union accounted for 24 percent; the United States 20 percent; Asia 17 percent; Mercosul 10 percent; and the rest of Latin America at 9 percent.
Abdu originally created the PLEC to promote the African continent, improving the image of African history, values and traditions, and encouraging harmonious interaction between African and Brazilian cultures. After working through various events in public spaces he narrowed his focus to two specific areas: schools and companies.Abdu seeks to reform the educational system to have a more humanized view of Africa and the empower Afro-Brazilians. His program used the federal law to enter into seven Unified Centers of Education and two municipal schools of the Coordinators of Education in Butantã and Ipiranga. PLEC offers 370 workshops each month with an average attendance of 2,775 children and adolescents, which generates two-thirds of the budget of the organization. From March 2006, Abdu will expand his workshops to all 21 Unified Education Centers in São Paulo.These courses culminate in a graduation ceremony. By seeing their children appreciate African culture, parents begin to learn more about Africa as well. Abdu asks the students to retake the questionnaire that they completed in the beginning. This serves as an indicator to verify how much they learned. Abdu also works with families. Instead of involving parents directly in his workshops, Abdu created a program to work with grandparents. He realized that many low-income families depend on grandparents to take care of the children while parents work. Abdu created a partnership with county governments and the Cultural centers of São Paulo to develop courses about African culture for grandparents, including teaching them African folklore. This program has allowed an inter-generational contact between them and their grandchildren and consolidated a new interpretation of Africa and being black inside the family nucleus.Abdu also works to increase the number of teachers trained to teach about African history and culture. Teaching these courses are members of PLEC: African immigrants and black and white Brazilians. Most courses are offered in conjunction with governmental authorities, but interested individuals are able to enroll in the class or sign up for individual classes. In 2004, PLEC graduated 200 public school teachers in São Paulo and 350 grandparents. Abdu believes the graduation of these teachers and grandparents is a necessary step for having more people equipped to spread his work and methodology throughout São Paulo and the rest of the country. In addition, PLEC has organized different events in other municipalities in the state of São Paulo. The other area of PLEC’s work is to improve commercial relations between Africa and Brazil. The strategy is to raise demand for African goods and services. Through PLEC, Abdu is able to purchase different African goods which he uses in his workshops and sells at the expositions and conventions he participates in. Abdu believes that in order to change the image of Africa in Brazil, Brazilians must come in contact with African goods and culture. Thus through his use of African goods in his teaching and the sale of handicrafts, Abdu allows the Brazilian people to experience different parts of African culture and reflect on any connections they might see between Brazilian and African culture. Through the sale of these products, Abdu is able to generate the remaining third of PLEC’s budget.
Abdu Ferraz was born in a village in Sanza Pombo, in the north of Angola. His parents were members of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, the group in power that defended African socialism. Since independence, Angola suffered a devastating civil war. In order to escape serving in the military under such horrendous conditions, Abdu’s parents faked his birth certificate to reduce his age by four years. His parents wanted him to go to Europe to study and live with his brother and cousin. Instead of following his parents’ wishes, Abdu at age 16 enrolled in seminary and graduated with a degree in philosophy in 1995. During this period, he developed artistic talents in poetry, storytelling, old religions of his people, and in his last year became the editor of the seminary paper. In 1995, Abdu was transferred to Brazil to complete his seminary training. The following year, he became disillusioned with the clergy and more concerned with the lives of Afro-Brazilians. In 1996, after leaving the clergy, Abdu returned to Angola. However, months later Abdu went back to Brazil. Between 1996 and 1999, Abdu was a columnist for Jornal Bragança Diário where he developed the project for Educação Paz e Amor (Peace and Love Education), working with diverse cultures around education. In 1999, he created the certificate for “Friend of Africa” which he bestowed on Brazilians that were dedicated to developing an Africa-Brazil relationship to formalize their commitment. An experience that symbolizes the spirit of perseverance that has always been present in Abdu was a hunger strike in 1999 in Brasilia to protest the sale of Brazilian arms to Angola. That year his father was imprisoned for opposing armed conflict in Angola.After a period of reflection, Abdu audited the masters program in political science at the University of Campinas where he dedicated himself to his desire to bring African history and culture into Brazilian society and education. With this determination, Abdu went to Diadema to develop his project “Roots of Brazil”. With the Hummingbird Project and Support for Children at Risk Project, Abdu began working with the community to conceptualize an image of African heritage. With funding from Alto Comissariado das Nações Unidas para Refugiados he was able to remodel his project and create PLEC with the objective of promoting the African continent in schools in São Paulo. Since then, his work has been realized in different sectors of Brazilian society.Abdu is aware of the importance of his work for African-Brazilian relations as well as his responsibility as an African immigrant to promote the shared memories and culture between Brazilian and African people as a way to overcome the estrangement and deconstruct the stereotypes that prevent African-Brazilian cooperation.