Tag Archives: Tamba-Tajá

The truth and fearlessness

Macha Chmakoff, Daniel et l'ange dans la fosse

My God has sent his angel and closed the lions’ mouths so that they have not hurt me.

Daniel 6:23

Of those who are fearless, there two kinds:  the reckless and the serene.

The reckless attract more followers, for they are dashing and dramatic.  Yet that which is dramatic is also sloppy and careless.  The reckless laugh in the face of danger, but only because doing anything else would seem lifeless and limp.  The reckless cannot appreciate the little things, nor can they understand the subtle, warm moments in between danger, fear, excitement and ecstasy.  They see and feel only in extremes and abandon all judgment in between.  They search out life at the margins where few dare to go or dwell and in this they seem like heroes, but they are not.  Heroes can understand triumph in sadness, and they always know where they are.  The reckless, by comparison, are lost.

I—I can remember
Standing, by the wall
And the guns, shot above our heads
And we kissed, as though nothing could fall
And the shame, was on the other side
Oh we can beat them, for ever and ever
Then we could be heroes, just for one day

David Bowie, “Heroes” (1977)

Fearless Heroes

The serene can be heroes.  They know where they are and what they want.  They are motivated by the desire to do the right thing, and they do so regardless of the odds of success or failure.  They are not reckless because they endanger no one but themselves.  They accept the risk even as they try to minimize it because they are as simply human as the rest of us and they do fear death and pain and suffering.

Giotto, St. Francis Preaching to the Birds

Heroes who are fearless and serene become vessels for a love larger than they are.  They seek nothing from their actions but to be made even more whole in the act of giving to another.  St. Francis of Assisi—once a street brawler, solider, and libertine—found his calling in service to the poor and in love for the animals.  He became the friend of all those in harm’s way, the trampled upon, oppressed, and marginal.   The prayer of St. Francis puts all of this in simple verse.  We used to sing it in church when I was a child.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace
where there is hatred, let me sow love
where there is injury, pardon
where there is doubt, faith
where there is despair, hope

where there is darkness, light
where there is sadness, joy.

O Master, grant that I may never seek
so much to be consoled as to console
to be understood, as to understand
to be loved, as to love
for it is in giving that we receive
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

Amen.

Modern Heroes

Padre Bruno Secchi and Pastora Rosa Marga Rothe—he a Catholic priest and she a Lutheran Minister—are both human rights workers in Brazil. I met them in 1992, as I was beginning fieldwork for research on social movements and politics.

Padre Bruno came to Brazil in 1964 and in 1970 founded the República of Emaús, a ministry with street children.  Emaús has just celebrated its 40th anniversary and is still going strong.  Padre Bruno’s work is dedicated to creating the space and opportunity for street children to grow into productive, happy people.  It is humble work, dedicated not to changing these children but to allowing them to find their potential and calling in life.  Emaús in Belem was a part of the worldwide movement that eventually resulted in the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was ratified in 1989.  The CRC is a milestone on the path to a better world, appointing the rights of the child in the world we would like to have, not the world we know right now.

Rosa Marga I have written about already, in the Tamba-Tajá stories.  She teaches and practices liberation theology, the interpretation of Jesus’s life and works as a message of liberation for the oppressed and marginalized of the world.  She has been a leader in the women’s movement in Brazil and Belém.  From 1997 to 2005, she was the Ombudswoman for the State Police in Pará, responsible for representing and investigating claims against corruption, brutality, or human rights violations by the police.  In this position, she received international recognition.  She and her family took me in as a friend.  There is always much joy in her house.

Giotto, "St Francis Giving his Mantle to a Poor Man"

In 2004, along with my colleague Sasha Abramsky, I once again interviewed Padre Bruno and Rosa Marga for my work as a researcher.  Afterwards, I reflected on what I had learned from them over all these years.  I was struck by their constancy in the face of overwhelming odds.  They work for the small victories and see joy in every one, rather than the long road left.  Serenity, I thought, is what makes them so effective and compelling.  Without serenity, they would not be able to endure the suffering that their struggles have brought them personally.  Without serenity they would not be able to bring young people into adulthood with hope, promise, and love.

The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote the “Serenity Prayer” at some point in the 1930s.  It has been widely adopted by many who struggle with changing themselves in a world that resists change.

God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

What is remarkable about people like St. Francis, Padre Bruno, and Rev. Rosa Marga, is that the “wisdom to distinguish the one from the other” leads them to take on the most enduring and difficult challenges of all.  That is real heroism.

Notes and Credits

The opening image is “Daniel et l’ange dans la fosse” (“Daniel and the Angel in the Pit”) by Macha Chmakoff (www.chmakoff.com), a contemporary painter who has an extensive set of works in Biblical themes and images.  The original painting is oil on canvas, 52″ x 39″ (130 x 97 cm).  Ms. Chmakoff is a psychoanalyst and painter who has been exhibited across France and has gained international noteriety for her paintings.  The image was provided by Ms. Chmakoff and is used here with her permission.  She recently had a reproduction of one her paintings, “Jésus, souviens-toi de moi,” exhibited between the columns of the Église de la Madeleine, the magnificent Greek classical church in Paris.

David Bowie’s song “Heroes” was recorded in Berlin with Brian Eno, near the Berlin Wall. When guitarist Tony Visconti and backup singer Antonia Maass snuck away for a kiss near the wall, Bowie wrote them into the song and they became heroes.  The song is a masterpiece of experimentation that sounds so much less than experimental today.  Radical as it was in its day, it’s purely beautiful today, and its sentiment is timeless.

The images of “St. Francis Preaching to the Birds” and “St Francis Giving his Mantle to a Poor Man” are from the series of frescoes known as “The Legend of St. Francis,” which can be found in the Upper Church of the Basilica de San Francesco in Assisi, Italy.  The frescoes date from 1297-1300 and are usually attributed to Giotto de Bondone, though they may have been done by several painters.  These images are taken from The Atheneum, an organization devoted to making tools for art, scholarship and community-building available over the Web.  They encourage people to post photographic images of art from around the world and then make it possible for others to repost and use that art in ways that will bring it to others.

St. Francis’s ministry to animals and to the poor are radical and enduring parts of his ministry.  St. Francis is a constant reminder of the simple fearlessness in Jesus’s ministry.

A Note on Heroes, Villians, and Justice

Not all who are serene and fearless can be called heroes.  I have chosen to dedicate this post to the heroes, but I have to recognize that villains, too, can be fearless and serene.  In this way, they are like heroes, even though they are not.  Let me clarify.

Only those who work for the cause of justice are heroes.  There are others who are equally fearless and serene but who are concerned only for themselves, their narrow interests, and personal pleasures.  They are sociopaths.  Those sociopaths who intentionally harm others are the criminals of sensational accounts in films, television, books, and magazine.  They are rapists and serial killers and destroyers.  Some find a legitimate outlet for their urges in mercenary exploits, military conquest, dogma, and institutional authority.  These sociopaths are dangerous and horrible, but they are not numerous.

Far more pernicious are sociopaths whose violence is exerted at a distance under the cover of ideology and reason.  They kill without ever coming close to the trigger.  They command armies and industries.  They tell us we need them in order to live our own lives and that without them we would not have jobs or homes or food to put on the table.  They are serene.  They are fearless.  They are all around us and hidden in our midst.  “Sometimes Satan,” Bob Dylan sang, “comes as a man of peace.”

As for justice, there are many definitions, but I prefer to keep it simple.  That which reduces needless suffering and cruelty is just.  The definition of needless suffering and cruelty usually is apparent by sight alone, without words.  Once people start to bring words into play, the cause of justice is damaged.  This is a cruel irony for those of us who are writers and seek to paint beauty in words.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child is one of the UN’s landmark accomplishments.  It is a form of aspirational justice, more a signpost on the way to the world we would like to live in than a description of the world we have.  All member-nations of the UN have signed on to the CRC, except for two:  Somalia and the United States of America.  Serenity now.

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Tamba-Tajá, 1

Santa Maria de Belém do Grão-Pará

I’d been introduced to the Tamba-Tajá by Marga, who was a Lutheran minister, human rights activist, and liberation theologist.  The bar’s owners were her friends, Iza and Rosângela, who were related by marriage.  Iza had been a revolutionary and women’s rights activist in Brazil for many years, including the worst years of the military dictatorship in the 1960s and 1970s.  Rosângela was raising her children and grandchildren while selling apartment leases in Belém and generally dabbling in real estate.

They named their bar for a plant of local legend, called Tamba-Tajá by Amazonian natives, known as the Elephant Ear plant to others, which people grew in their yards.  The Tamba-Tajá can tell if there is much love in the house, very little, or if one of the spouses is cheating.  A friend of mine in Belém made a point of telling me that a smart woman always plants one in her yard.

The bar called Tamba-Tajá was a family affair in the working class neighborhood of Jurunas.  In January, during the height of the rainy season, the streets of Jurunas are deep with a mud of dark, red clay which can also be home to ferocious tribes of fire ants out in the countryside. People debate which is better, the mud during rainfall or the fine red dust kicked into the air when the streets are dry.  The dust gets in your nostrils and mouth, leaving the taste of clay on your tongue.  They say the dust causes the “gripe,” colds and fevers everyone lives with and no one likes.

A street in Jurunas, 1993

The Tamba-Tajá opened right on to the unpaved street.  It was in the bottom floor of the house where Iza’s estranged and still quite revolutionary husband lived.  He was a poet of some local fame.  The bar was completely open to the outside, inside and outside having little meaning in a place where inside is often outside, defined less by bricks or wood than by the way people inhabit those spaces.  In the front, palm trees shade the patio and keep the rain off people as they eat and dance and drink.

The windows are open to the outside air, too, as there are no screens in Belém, except on Marga’s house, perhaps because she was descended from Germans.  In the streets and through the windows of the Tamba-Tajá you can see dark silhouettes of palm trees swaying in the breeze over Jurunas and its little, wooden houses, home to too many people with too little money, though they always seem to have enough to stop by the Tamba-Tajá and the other housefront bars in the neighborhood on a Friday night. Cold beer beats the heat in Belém.

There’s a group of reggae musicians who hang out at the Tamba-Tajá, along with political dreamers and the friends and family of Iza and Rosângela.  These musicians spin records on some nights and everyone dances.  The sweat soaks your body as you twist and find a place in the scratchy rhythms booming from the old, battered speakers Ivan dragged to the bar on the back of his bicycle. Over crackling, jerry-rigged wires and pounding drums, Bob Marley lived for a while at the Tamba-Tajá.

The first time I went there was to meet Marga and celebrate Iza’s birthday.  They had me play for them.  The stereo wires were re-rigged to a microphone that had seen much better days many years ago, and they gave me a guitar that made the microphone look like a piece of new equipment.  I didn’t know any Brazilian songs, but that’s not what they wanted to hear from me.  “Let It Be” always brings down the house in Brazil.  And it did again, that night at the Tamba-Tajá.

Rua Tupinambás

Now Iza’s birthday had passed, and it was a Friday night.  I hadn’t been over to Tamba-Tajá for a while, and with no plans to speak of I headed for Jurunas, a slow walk about 10 blocks down Rua Tupinambás, like “Jurunas” the name of one of Brazil’s original, native peoples.

It had been a long day for me, with much work to do, and the rain storms were particularly hard.  In Belém, the blue skies of morning typically give way to clouds and showers by mid-afternoon.  From January to May the rain can start in the afternoon and not stop til near daylight.  It washes the city and cleanses its ills and keeps the equatorial sun from burning everyone and everything to a crisp.  In all, about 86 inches of rain falls in Belém each year, a little over 7 feet.

The rain leaves the air smelling fresh with the breeze off the giant Guarajá Bay, which brings the ocean to into the mouths of the three rivers that surround Belém:  the Amazon, Toncantins and Guamá.  The ocean tides are sometimes so strong that they send waves up the rivers, so that they seem to flow backwards for a while.  Pororoca, they call it.  All this water gives life to the land and its people.

As I walked down Tupinambás, I looked to the sky for signs of rain, letting my eyes graze the cloud bottoms and measure how far or close they might be.  The city lights bounced back from the clouds, and the clouds glowed orange in the distance, a false sunset that lasts all night long until the clouds dissipate in the coolness of dawn and the new day.

Tonight at the Tamba-Tajá there was no one I knew, save for Rosângela.  I greeted her, got a frosty Kaiser, and sat down at a table of strangers, just listening to the conversation.  A man was speaking to a boy.  The man held his right arm across his chest.  He held his right arm with his left hand, as he would the neck of a guitar.  The boy did the same.

So we began to speak about music.  The man called himself “Nego,” which is a common nickname meaning “black dude.”  The boy I recognized from reggae nights at the Tamba-Tajá.  He had wide, brown eyes that spoke of youth.  Nego had curly black hair thick atop his head, a round face and full lips like my own. His smile and manner drew me in.  He asked me questions, about music, my life, why I was sitting in the Tamba-Tajá and what I was doing.  We talked for a long time, over a few more Kaisers.  The others round us had their own conversations, and we had ours.

Nego wanted to know if I’d ever been out of the city to see the forest.  I hadn’t.  He asked me if I’d like to go with his family to a farm they have in the middle of the forest, a day away from Belém in Moju.  I said, “sure, Id love that.”

“We’ll leave in a couple hours,” he said.

Notes and Credits

This story, Tamba-Tajá, will be told in 3 parts on truth and rocket science.  It recounts a visit I took to the bar on a Friday night in 1993, during my year of doctoral research on Belém.  There I met a young man who became a close friend for most of 1993, and he invited me out to his family’s farm in the rainforest.  I returned home on Tuesday.

I took the photo of Belém’s docks in the “Cidade Velha” in April 1993, as the boat left Belém for the journey that is recounted in this story.  “Cidade Velha” means “old city” and refers to the original colonial settlement of Belém that was established in 1616 to consolidate Portugal’s claims over the Amazon.  The other photos of Jurunas were taken around the same time by me, except for the photo of Rua Tupinambas.  That photo comes form the site Skyscraper City, which contains a great number of photos of Belem.  Very nice collection!

For more on my friend, Rosa Marga Rothe, see her Wikipedia page.  Her daughter, Iva Rothe, is a accomplished musician.

The picture of the Tamba-Tajá plant in the text is from the website, “Pasarela Cultural,” which goes on to discuss the legend of the Tamba-Tajá.

The legend of the Tamba-Tajá can be found all over the Web.  Silvana Nunes’s fotolog has a great photo of the plant and a simple text of the myth, which I have translated.  Nunes, a teacher and photographer, has another blog called “Foi desse jeito que eu ouvi dizer…” (this is how I heard it…).

In the Macuxi tribe there was a very strong and intelligent Indian.  One day, he fell in love with a beautiful Indian woman from his village.  They were married a little later, and they were very happy, until one day the woman became very ill and was paralyzed.

So that he wouldn’t be separated from his love, the Macuxi man made a sling to carry the woman on his back, taking her everywhere he went.  One day, however, the man noticed that his cargo was heavier than normal.  When he untied the sling, he found that his beloved wife was dead.

The man went into the forest and dug a hole on the edge of a creek.  He buried himself together with his wife, for there was no reason for him to continue living.  Some time passed until a full moon appeared in the same place where they were buried, and a gracious plant unknown to the Macuxis began to grow there.

The plant was the Tamba-Tajá, with dark green triangular leaves, which have on their backside another, smaller leaf which appears similar to the female gentialia.  Together, the two leaves symbolize the great love that the Macuxi couple had.

Amazonian caboclos grow the plant near their houses and attribute mystical powers to it.  If, for example, the plant grows well with exuberant, lush leaves, it’s a sign that there is much love in that house.  But if the larger leaves don’t have the smaller ones on their backs, there is no love in the house.  If there is more than one smaller leaf on the backside of the larger one, one of the spouses if unfaithful.

The photo of the Tamba-Tajá plant in the story’s text shows the “small leaf” or flower on the backside of the Elephant Ear quite well.  Without that flower, love ain’t going right in the house.

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