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Contributor: Victor Amokeodo
Brazil's first Black Senator

More than a century after it became a Republic, Brazil has had only its first Black senator - 52 year old Benedita da Silva. Benedita, one of Brazil's millions of impoverished Africans, was the daughter of a washer woman and priestess of the Afro-Brazilian Candombl? religion. She spent her childhood with 12 siblings in a shanty town built on stilts in a flooded area of Rio de Janeiro. Her family was so poor that at the age of six she began working in Rio's street markets.

At the age of fifteen, shortly after her mother's death, she married her first husband, a heavy-drinking house painter. By 22, she already had five children, and at 37, her first husband had died. Life was so hard for her and her children that she felt suicidal until 1968 when a friend introduced her to an evangelical church which helped her through these difficult times of her life. She has remained a devout follower ever since.

After her introduction to the church, she began to get political and became a founder member of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers Party) or PT for short. Through the party, she became first a municipal councillor, then a federal deputy, then an active member of the constituent assembly which drew up the Brazilian constitution. In October last year, she won a senatorial seat on the PT ticket - one of only five of the party's seats - becoming the first Black senator ever in the history of Brazil.

According to Benedita, "the Brazilian nation was forged through the rape of the Black population. Black families were destroyed. My grandparents and great-grandparents were slaves. They had children who were taken away from them and sold. We have no idea what happened to them."

Misfortune in her personal life was never far away. She remarried in 1982, but her husband died six years later. She is now married for a third time to the famous Brazilian actor Ant?nio Pitanga.

Benedita still lives in the Chapeu Mangueira shanty town where she brought up her children. She justifies her decision to reman there by saying that her condition in life is to be a shanty town dweller, whereas she is only temporarily a senator.

The story of her rise, and of others like her, is told in the book, Brazil, Carnival of the Oppressed. The book is primarily about the growth of the Brazilian Workers' Party and its relationship with the man - Luis Ignacio "Lula" da Silva - who almost led it to a presidential victory at the last elections.

Carnival of the Oppressed paints a grim picture of the social divide in Brazil which led to the rise of the party: "The severe social crisis (in Brazil), provoked not so much by lack of resources as by the unwillingness of the rich to share their wealth, has spawned widespread violence. Tradesmen in big cities, exasperated by repeated lootings by adolescent boys too young to be sent to prison, have organised death squads to kill them. With more and more youngsters involved in drug-trafficking, boys frequently die in shoot-outs in the battle for territory in big cities. As a result, violence is now the main cause of death among adolescent boys, something found in no other country in the world not at war; official figures show that murder is the cause of six out of ten deaths among 15-18 year old boys. The police admit that at least seventy per cent of the 1,152 youngsters murdered in Rio de Janeiro in 1993 had been killed by death squads.

Kidnappings, too, are becoming common. The victims are no longer just the very rich, who surround themselves with bodyguards, but also moderately wealthy businessmen and their families, who are less well protected and thus more vulnerable.

This violence has exacerbated the system of social apartheid. The rich live in bunkers, protected by fortifications and armed guards. Their children, never allowed to travel by bus, underground or even taxi, go everywhere in chauffeur-driven cars. Violence has become the standard topic of conversation among the Brazilian middle class."

Brazil: Carnival of the Oppressed is published by the Latin American Bureau (Tel 0171 278 2829) and is on sale for ?5.99.
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