The prayer house

A fight for Indigenous rights in Brazil

As explosions from a rock quarry shake the ground and evangelical churches move in, one Kaiowá family in Brazil is rebuilding their traditional prayer house and keeping their way of life alive.

Three-year-old Alana, who will be the community's next prayer leader, stands with her mother in the door of their home.

Jaguapiru village, Dourados Indigenous Reserve, MS, Brazil - The cracks in the walls of Floriza de Souza Silva’s home ran deep the day the prayer house came down.

They spread like tree roots, splitting the clay-like mud held in place by bamboo framing as the ground shook from the explosion across the rust-dirt road. The three buildings where the matriarch lived with her husband, Jorge da Silva, and parts of her extended family stood firm, but the oca - where many Guarani-Kaiowá Indigenous people living in and around the Dourados Indigenous Reserve came to pray - began to buckle, its thatched roof cascading to the ground.

It was 2015 and this was the second time a blast from the neighbouring quarry had brought the family’s prayer house down. The first, built in 2000, came down five years before. The wide, oval building with its high peaked roof was never meant to withstand the earthquake-like tremors. Its bamboo framing was woven together and hammered in place with long nails by Silva and his sons and its walls held together with the same mud as their home.

Its strength came from within, where they prayed for the protection of their children, sang traditional songs for crops to grow plentiful and robust, and taught the Guarani language to the young and those who had forgotten how to speak their mother tongue.

Souza, now 60, and Silva, 64, have spent their lives fighting to protect the Kaiowá culture, language and religion in a place where colonisation had tried to rob them of everything they had centuries ago. When the oca, or prayer house, collapsed, they knew they would rebuild it again. It was a beacon of hope, standing tall to show that the Kaiowá would resist, and remain on their land for generations to come.

Jorge da Silva and his family are rebuilding the oca, or traditional prayer house, after it collapsed due to a blast from the neighbouring rock quarry.


Tied down

The Indigenous people of Dourados have suffered well-documented human rights abuses for more than a century.

The Dourados Indigenous Reserve was first created in 1917 by the federal government’s Indian Protection Service (SPI), which would become FUNAI during the 1960s. Initially called the Francisco Horta Barbosa Indigenous Centre, it was one of seven centres the Indigenous affairs agency devised between 1910 and 1928 where the Kaiowá and Guarani families were relocated after it forcibly removed them from their territories spread across what is now the midwestern state of Mato Grosso do Sul. The SPI considered the land vacant, despite the Indigenous people living there, and fit for farming, ranching and other commercial use.


Over the following decades, many of the families attempted to return to their land, or "tekohas", a Guarani word that means “the place where we are what we are,” but were often violently removed and forced to return to the 3,500 hectares (8,649 acres) of the reserve.

Now, the Dourados Indigenous Reserve has shrunk to 3,000 hectares (7,413 acres), far from what its current 18,000 residents - mostly Kaiowá, Guarani and Terena - need to flourish. Souza and Silva have just five hectares (12 acres) left for their family when they say at least 20 hectares (49 acres) would be ideal.

But the land was not always officially measured. The reserve residents lost were transitory areas and home to large extended families in which members moved freely. Conversely, the reserve has left them tied down, unable to visit their ancestral territories, severing an important connection to their history and culture.


‘Why should I have to run from my home?’

It was late afternoon when the piercing sound of the siren rang out, cutting through the silence that usually blankets the Jaguapiru village, save for the rustling of leaves in the wind, the laughs of children climbing mango trees in pursuit of the sweet sticky snack, and the voices of family members exchanging notes in Guarani on how their day of fishing had gone at the nearby river. It had been years since the neighbouring quarry, owned by Santa Maria Mining, agreed to warn Souza and her family of an impending blast but then the shrill sound of an alarm rang out.

The family often fishes at a nearby lake or from their own tanks in order to make meals and sell what is left in town.

But the 15 minutes between the sound of the siren and the explosion, meant to make the open mining pit’s basalt crumble, preparing the igneous rock for extraction so it could be used as a concrete aggregate, was not enough. Some of the men working at the mine offered to pick Souza up in one of their trucks and drive her to the main highway. A blast one night had knocked her to the ground, resulting in a weeks-long hospital stay. She had taken them up on their offer once but decided never to do it again.

“Why should I have to run from my home, even if it’s for just a few minutes?” she says now. “And what about the rest of my family? Why should they stay here and suffer?”

She worries about the smell of burned tyres coming from the quarry and she wonders if her brother’s loss of vision could be caused by the dust kicked up during explosions and by the constant flow of trucks carrying the mining material on the dirt road that divides her family’s small parcel of land from the excavation site.

Souza’s father died of a heart attack during the blast in 2000 that took their first prayer house down. Silva’s mother, 108, died shortly after.

Floriza de Souza Silva holds a photo of her parents. Her father died of a heart attack during the mining blast in 2000 that took the first prayer house down.

Silva is also one of several people living close to the quarry access road to suffer from hearing loss. He remembers when it started. The family had heard workers yell to each other earlier in the day about a blast scheduled for that afternoon. It was a Friday, and Silva was preparing to teach his regular Guarani language class in the oca, which was still standing at the time. As students started to arrive, he sent them home. He did not want them anywhere near the blast when it happened.

As he gathered his belongings and turned to leave the prayer house, he felt it.

“It was like a thud in my left ear, and then there was nothing but a whistle,” Silva says.

He thought it would pass, but it lasted more than two weeks. A week after that, he felt something leaking from his ear as he laid down to sleep. He put a cloth to it to see what it was: blood. He tried to keep it covered, but it only got worse. When he saw a doctor, he found out that his eardrum was blown. Not even surgery could fix it.

Silva could take medication for the rest of his life to dull the pain, but the price was steep. He could not afford the 130 Brazilian real ($24) a month for long and has not taken the pills in more than a year. Traditional medicines stopped working. The throbbing and the far-away hammering sound he now hears in his left ear are constant. He has had to cut down on teaching language and culture classes and no longer goes to Indigenous leadership meetings because of the pain. He often sits at home by himself, the sound of voices too overwhelming.

He once asked the men running the Santa Maria Mining quarry for help covering the cost of his medication, but he says all they did was laugh when they saw him with the cloth covering his ear tied around his head.

“All they wanted to do was humiliate me,” he says.

Santa Maria Mining did not respond to several requests for an interview.


Rebuilding the prayer house

Plans were made to rebuild the oca after it fell in 2015, but construction only started four years later. They had needed to think about making the prayer house stronger so it could survive the next blast. Materials were either expensive or hard to find. The family used to collect thatch on their own land when it included the large field on the other side of the road next to the excavation site. Now they needed permission from the quarry if they wanted to gather what they needed there. They preferred to wait until they could get a ride to a field further away than to ask.

Floriza and Jorge's son Josuel works the red dirt that will become the floor of the prayer house.

To reinforce the traditional construction, they decided to trade nails for screws. The beam that ran horizontally to support the oca's roof would be eucalyptus instead of bamboo, and a pole plotted deep into the ground would support the centre.

But some things would not change. For the Kaiowá, the main door has to be facing a spring. The smaller side entrances allow storms - physical and metaphorical - to come in from the right and go out the left. A back door is never used.

The progress is slow, but they refuse to give up. As leaders in their community Souza and Silva want to make sure their village continues to survive long after they are gone. Part of that ability to thrive means finding work. A government programme gave them large tanks to raise fish, to eat and to sell, but the dust from the quarry settles in the water and the fish do not grow as big as they once did.

The necklaces the family makes and sells in town are made of seeds and other plant material they find on their land and surrounding territories.

At one point, there were jobs for Indigenous people at the quarry, but Silva says they were all let go when they started butting heads with the bosses about what the work was doing to their people and their land. Other work in the area is scarce, and they have to head into the city to get by, selling the little fish they do not eat, as well as the jewellery, baskets and sculptures they make from seeds, straw and wood.

Their shrinking territory means they have already lost the ability to grow their own traditional foods, like potatoes, squash and manioc. While the oca is standing, they still say the traditional prayer for maize, despite the fact it does not grow here any more.


Respecting faith

Not far from Souza and Silva in Jaguapiru is a second Kaiowá prayer house, and one built by the Guarani sits in the neighbouring Bororó village. They are the only prayer houses for the 18,000 people who live on the reserve and the hundreds of others who live on surrounding Indigenous land that has not yet been officially recognised or demarcated by the government.

The Catholic Church used to be present in the reserve, but residents pushed it out decades ago, disillusioned with the way it was taking over their territory. Now, as the entire country shifts towards evangelical Christianity, 130 evangelical churches have cropped up in its place.

Some are large and bring in dozens of worshippers, with pastors trained outside the villages, while others are tiny, meant only for the family that built them. Souza’s nephew, 45-year-old Sergio Benites, founded his own one-room church in 2012. As a child, he used to sing and pray at the family oca (an evangelical church now stands where it once was) with his grandfather, but everything changed when he lost his mother.

A pastor at Sergio Benites's small, one-room evangelical church on the Dourados Indigenous Reserve reads from his Bible.

“The pastors would come by on their bicycles to see how we were doing and tell us about their church,” he says. “I knew then it was a calling from God to go with them.”

He first attended a service at a church called God is Love not long after his mother’s death. It had been a part of the reserve for years, but this was the first time he decided to give it a try. Now, he preaches into a microphone almost every night, standing behind a makeshift pulpit at the front of his unfinished church with a Bible open in front of him, despite not knowing how to read the passages written on its pages in Portuguese. His immediate family joins him, as do a handful of aunts.

But not Souza. She has nothing against the church, she says, and wishes there was peace between them. She and her nephew no longer discuss their faith so they can continue to live in harmony, but pastors from a church set to be built up the road from her home often bring a loudspeaker to the construction site.

“They spend the whole day yelling into a microphone, saying we’re all on the side of the devil,” she says. “All I want is for my people and my faith to be respected.”

The family often gathers in the unfinished prayer house to prepare their evening meal of fish, manioc, rice and beans.

She knows not everyone in the village will find their way back to the prayer house, but she is certain that those who do will be enough to keep their way of life alive. Her three-year-old granddaughter, Alana, is being prepared to be the family’s next prayer leader, and Souza started teaching her about the importance of her role in her community long before she was born. Souza could feel that she would be her successor as soon as she put her hand on her daughter-in-law’s belly.

Alana already knows the words to the prayers her family recites and the songs they sing to protect the land, water and trees that give them life.

As the family continues the slow process of rebuilding their prayer house, still waiting to collect enough thatch to finish the roof, they are also putting the finishing touches on two smaller buildings, one to hold daily Guarani language classes for the children in the Jaguapiru village and another where the women can work and display their handicrafts. They know what they are up against with the quarry and the church, and they expect the obstacles they face to continue to grow. But they have never backed down before, and they are not about to abandon the fight now. Their oca will stand again, and so will the Kaiowá people.