Sun, Cement, and Surprises: The End of Week One in Chapadinha, Brazil

We arrived to Chapadinha Monday afternoon after a redeye bus from Sao Paulo. Dona Dada, who had been the host mother of Luiza five years ago, welcomed us with open arms and four dogs barking at her feet when we arrived by pickup truck with the local priest, Padre Kyti. The farmhouse that Dada lives in with her husband is unlike any building I’ve ever seen. Painted bright blue and made even brighter by the Brazilian sun, the house framed by glowing red, countryside soil, leafy banana trees, and an always clear sky. Mostly open air, one can do the dishes on the porch overlooking miles of the rolling Minas Gerais hills. Luiza and Juliana are living with Dada throughout our stay, while Paulinha and I are staying in Analia and Nilson’s spacious farmhouse about an hour’s walk from both the center and Dona Dada’s. Lots of frantic chickens and the dogs who playfully antagonize them make for perfect alarm clocks at sunrise and the TV is the perfect size for the four of us to crowd and watch Brazilian Confederation Cup games. I’m lucky to call this place home for these several weeks.


Nilson was pleased to show us the work they had begun at the community center the first day we arrived. He and other Chapadinha residents requested the skill of a mason for two weeks from the mayor, which was granted to our surprise. Construction so far has involved separating rocks from sand, mixing cement by hand in a hole, making scaffolding out of nearby trees, and plastering the newly raised walls. We help the workers in any way we can, but our cement-mixing stamina is nothing compared to any of theirs, including the much older men.

Community meeting

With Nilson, we organized a community meeting on Tuesday night. Padre Kyti led a thanksgiving service, and then we formally introduced ourselves. We then invited people to sign up to help with the construction and to prepare food for the construction workers. We were absolutely delighted when men quickly volunteered to work for various weekdays. A problem arose, however, when we asked for volunteer cooks. We had planned that we would buy ingredients (beans, rice, salt, chicken, oil, and vegetables) in town, and then have the cook prepare and deliver lunch. The women fiercely protested, however; they wanted to supply all the food themselves as their contribution. We hadn’t expected this type of resistance—this type of generosity. Although we insisted that we had the money and wanted the purchase of the food to be our responsibility, the women were adamant about their decision, and today all the construction volunteers, ourselves, and the mason enjoyed a hot meal of rice, beans, and chicken, with cafezinho (4 oz of the sweetest, best coffee you’ve ever had) and pão de queijo (chewy cheese bread) for a snack from Nilza, a woman who lives on a farm about 8km away from the center.

On the long walk home (5km, perhaps) from the meeting, our mother Analia told us that every family in the community had at least one member present at the meeting, and that even a woman and her daughter had travelled from a neighboring community. The woman, Analia said, depends on the doctor who comes to the community center each month, and wants to participate in the project in any way she can.

In the two work days since the meeting, we’ve had people show up by bike, horse, donkey, motorcycle, and foot to help us with the construction of the center or just to watch and play some soccer. A couple girls have come by every day after school, and have taught me Portuguese in exchange for some English lessons and hair braiding. Besides introductions and some basic phrases, I can now effectively say, “Need help with the cement?” “I like your horse/donkey,” “Good God, there are a lot of ticks here,” and “Come eat cheesey bread!” And yesterday, at Luiza’s expense, the girls got some good practice counting to forty by counting Luiza’s mosquito bites.

1 - day 2 at the construction

Beginning of day two

Long walks at the end of the day

Long walks home

5 - making cement

Mixing cement

4 - Community meeting

Refreshments after community meeting

1 - day 4

Day three progress

4 - lunch time

Lunch for the construction volunteers provided by Nilza

7 - day's team!

Day three’s volunteer construction crew

Carolyn Gilbert with Luiza Montesanti in Chapadinha, Minas Gerais, Brazil

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