Under Foreign Skies: Wouter van Oosterhout

This programme is part of the series Under Foreign Skies
Wouter van Oosterhout and his son
Wouter van Oosterhout and his son (Facebook)

“Under Foreign Skies” is a series of portraits of Dutch people abroad doing remarkable things.

For the past 15 years, Dutchman Wouter van Oosterhout has lived in Recife, a city of over 1½ million people in northeastern Brazil. An anthropologist by profession, van Oosterhout has been involved in a variety of organisations fighting to improve the fate of the 50% of people who are poor and socially excluded in his region. Brazil is one of the countries with the greatest inequalities in the world, and the divide between the haves and the have-nots is increasing despite Brazil’s economic growth.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Original broadcast: September 8, 2007


Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service, presents “Under Foreign Skies: Portraits of Dutch People Abroad doing Remarkable Things”. The programme is presented by Eric Beauchemin.

Nowadays when I go back to Holland, the first week I drink beer with my friends and the second week I want to go back to Brazil.

For the past 15 years, Wouter van Oosterhout has lived in Recife, a city of over 1½ million people in northeastern Brazil. An anthropologist by profession, Wouter van Oosterhout has been involved in a variety of organisations fighting to improve the fate of the 50% of Brazilians who are poor and socially excluded. Brazil is one of the countries with the greatest inequalities in the world, and the divide between the haves and the have-nots is increasing despite Brazil’s economic growth. So how did this 46-year-old Dutchman first become interested in Brazil?

My first memory is from the end of the ’80s when I had to chance to get to know better a music group in Holland, called Sail Joya. This music attracted me so I came to be involved in Brazilian music. During the ’80s, I was acquainted with a Dutch-Antillean impresario who organized tours of Latin American music groups in Europe and I came to accompany these groups every now and then. Unfortunately my collaboration with my friend came to an end, but as I was towards finishing my studies – I studied anthropology – I decided to give my involvement with Brazilian culture a kind of professional turn, and I focussed on Brazil as a professional involvement. In 89, I got involved with a small foundation called Tito de Alencar Foundation, Stichting Tito de Alencar. And this foundation at that time supported small projects in the northeast of Brazil. I got acquainted with them, worked for them on a voluntary basis until 92 and for Tito de Alencar I made my first trip to Brazil. EB: What were your first impressions of Brazil? Did you find it very different from Holland? Huge, huge, huge country, completely different. Different because of the climate: very hot, very warm. Different because of its immense dimensions: to give you an idea, Brazil has 250 times the dimensions of Holland and it only has about 13 or 14 times the population Holland has, so it’s very scarcely populated in the interior, on the countryside. We have here in Brazil on the other side, we have these huge cities where 3, 4, 5, 6 million people live in kind of a chaotic arrangement. I remember arriving in Rio de Janeiro in October 1990. When you enter Rio de Janeiro by bus, you come through this immense favela, popular neighbourhood. I was shocked by it. I thought what am I going to do here? EB: You were saying that here in Brazil, in the big cities, there is a chaotic arrangement. What did you mean by that? Because these big cities were never planned as being big cities. At the most, what was planned are the old parts of the city and the nowadays where the medium and upper classes live, and all the rest, and I’m talking about something like 50 or 60% of the population that live there live in spontaneously built popular neighbourhoods that range from low quality to super low quality dwellings. So these people live in neighbourhoods where mostly there will be no sewage system. The electrical system will be something improvised, although nowadays this is improving. The transport system or absent or malfunctioning. The urban infrastructure is absent or insufficient. So these people live in a kind of improvised way: large families in small dwellings. When I go there, I always ask myself how can they survive in this environment. EB: Actually then it’s two different worlds: on the one hand, you have 50% of the population which is eking out an existence and the other half which is living in a very modern world. Yes, it’s true. Two different worlds, very close but very separated. On the one hand, the people – lower-middle class, middle class, upper class – that have access to a broad range of public services and public goods, mostly paid for, but we have excellent medical services here. We have excellent educational services here. We have transportation for whom has a car, it’s not very inconvenient. So when you have the means to pay for it, all that we have in Holland, we have in Brazil. On the other hand, the 50 to 60% of the people who do not have decent incomes because it is a matter of income and education, these people have no access whatsoever to quality public goods and services, although I have to say that in the last 5 years, this is changing as well. We have significant improvements in the educational system and in the health care system. This has to be noted.

EB: You said that when you first came here you were working for a Dutch organisation. I assume that after a certain amount of time you left that organisation and started doing other things. You said, you started building up your own network. What were you doing during that period? I left Tito de Alencar in 92. Tito de Alencar was a voluntary organisation, an organisation of volunteers, and very small scale. Small-scale in the sense that it wasn’t offering professional perspectives, and I wanted to move on. Tito de Alencar was also an organisation that operated basically from out of Holland, whereas I came to the conclusion that I wanted to live in Brazil, so that from 90 to 93, whilst I was living in Holland formally, I was in Brazil. I spent 3, 4, 5, 6 months at a time in Brazil. And I started building up the decision that my future would be here. At that time I got to know the woman who nowadays is my wife. We came to a conclusion that we would like to build a family together. So in ’93, at the end of ’93, I took the decision that I would like to live in Brazil. I didn’t see much perspective in Holland, that is another aspect because as I am a child of the ’80s, I grew up in a period that academics and especially academics with a social background had very few perspectives on the labour market in Holland. And for me, being well-educated with the knowledge of a couple of languages, this gave me a competitive advantage in Brazil. It wasn’t so difficult for me to get established. So I took the challenge and at the end of 93, I gave it up in Holland. I cancelled contracts, my rent, my house, I all gave it back, gave it all back, and I went to Brazil. It didn’t take me long to get going professionally. I arrived in October and in December I was working for a local non-governmental organisation, conducting a small research. So I got started relatively rapidly. This kind of undefined professional status took me until 95 when I got to be involved full time in this same NGO. It’s called Escola de Formação Quilimbo dos Palmares Equipe. EB: What does it do? Escola de Formação Quilimbo dos Palmares is one of the organisations that specialised in what is called popular education. You have to consider that on the one hand, you have a large opening towards the democratisation of society. On the other hand, you have a very large part of the population that is not prepared for this. First because they didn’t grow up within a democratic system. They don’t have the democratic background that enables them to participate democratically. Second because they are not prepared to do it. Many of them do not read or write, do not know how to process information. So how do you get these people who are fully unprepared, how do you get them to be participating in a civilised way within a civil society or within a democracy? And this gap between on the one hand this democratic opening and on the other hand a population that is not prepared for it is what popular education that builds upon the principles formulated by Paulo Freire and a lot of other academics, try to prepare the people for these participatory processes in democracy. What does this mean in practice? This means that you accompany social groups, basic social movements and this could be grass-roots movements. This could be local women’s groups. This could be a local association of farmers. This could be a large variety of different popular organisations and with these organisations we start building up a dialogue on what democracy is and the way to be participating more actively and what kind of benefits would come out of it and why this would be necessary for them to do this. So this is the kind of work that the Escola de Formação Quilimbo dos Palmares still does, up until today. At that time, we travelled through the whole northeast of Brazil. EB: Did you have something special to offer because of your background as a Dutch anthropologist? Yes, yes. What was appreciated at that time was some kind of analytical distance, objectiveness. What was welcomed was my knowledge of several languages which they do not have, and a sort of contribution in planning processes. This special condition of being a foreigner, of being an estrangeiro, is appreciated because of these qualities normally.

EB: You said that you travelled throughout the northeast. During that time, do you think that the escola was actually making a difference? Was it actually bringing about a dialogue and preparing people for democracy and to get involved in civil society? Yes, I do. I do strongly believe in this. I strongly believe that the victory of the Workers Party o Partido dos Trabalhadores  for which nowadays Lula Ignacio da Silva is the president of the Brazilian republic, I strongly believe that this victory has been prepared in part by this kind of work, this kind of political conscience that has been built up with these people, basically lower-class people and they have been able to distinguish between what would be rational voting in their interests and what would be like traditional voting in the interests of the power groups they were related to. EB: How long did you work for that organisation? I worked for that organisation until 2001, 8 years. In 2001, I left and I went to an organisation called Terre des Hommes Holland, the Dutch Terre des Hommes organisation. Several countries in Europe have a Terre des Hommes. They are independent although there is a confederation of organisations Terre des Hommes that meet once or twice a year. I came to represent Terre des Hommes Holland in Brazil. I came to develop the Terre des Hommes programme in Brazil. Terre des Hommes supports projects that seek to benefit children and teenagers that are in what they call confirmed risk situations. What is a confirmed risk situation? That means that the child is not only poor, but is using drugs, is infected with HIV, it’s something more than poor, has come to cross a line from where it will not be able to come back on its own. And Terre des Hommes at the moment supports something like 15 or 16 organisations, basically in the northeast and in the Amazon region. They support a great variety of projects. EB: What was the attraction for you in this type of work? Children and teenagers and the fact that you were to be instrumental, in a key position, in agilising support for children and teenagers. The consultancy position that Terre des Hommes was offering me was really giving me the chance to make a difference in this, to select these projects of which I thought they would make a difference and would have an impact, a positive impact on the lives of these children that were so much in need of support. EB: How many children were you supporting? Well I can make a very fast calculation. I think that we were supporting in total something like 20,000 children. That is because one of these projects…normally the projects Terre des Hommes supports in Latin America are small, basic projects, but one of these projects in Brazil is a very large one. It is a project that seeks to develop and implement and enlarge the health care system in the Amazon region, near Santa Arena. It involves the populations of the Tapajós and the Arapiuns rivers, and only this project comprises something like 28,000 persons of which almost half are children. So that alone, only this project will reach 15,000 children and teenagers. The other projects will – there is one that has a very positive impact on something like 2500 children and the rest of the projects has some more limited scope. But usually when the scope gets more limited, the impact on the children’s lives gets to be more profound. It depends on what target groups you work with.

EB: When you say a positive impact, I mean, how did the work that you were doing change the lives of these children?Better health, better education. Let me give you an example: there is an organisation that works on public schools in the rural area of Paraíba, which is close by. What they do is simply drive around with a library bus and working by a system of lending, reading and taking with them another book. The difference that it makes is that whilst without this project, these children would leave school at the age of 12 or 13 as semi-analphabets because they do not really learn to read and write in these schools, nowadays at the age of 8, they write stories, they take books home and read them to their parents and to their brothers and sisters. So this inverts the situation completely, and with this, it gives them access to a whole range of other services from which they can benefit in their future lives. This is a very, very large impact for these children. Another example is the health care project in the Amazon where children with simple measures like taking two drops of chloride or boiling the water or constructing a latrine that is hygienic and does not pollute the environment, by means of this kind of simple measures, children do not fall ill due to bacteria and virus infections and do not die. Many children from 0 to 2 years old have died from this kind of diseases and they are relatively simple to eradicate. You have to do it.

EB: You were saying that you were also helping children or teenagers who were at risk, for example who were taking drugs or who had HIV. And you talked about them having crossed the line where they were basically irretrievable. Were you able to get some of these kids back on the right path?  Absolutely, yes, absolutely. Let me give you an example: in Manaus, there is a house, an institution that takes care of children that have HIV. These children, all of them have a poverty background. Were these children to live in the slums where they grew up, all of them would have died. Whilst they remain in the institution, they live and they have relatively normal lives. The oldest member of the community is a teenager who has thus far survived, who has 16 years of HIV infection. The big risk is when they go home. When they go home, they return to the slums from where they come from and their aspect is so healthy is that their parents who are poor and have no means, they think, no, they do no need medicine any more. They do not need special nutrition, and then it happens within six weeks, they can come from relatively healthy teenagers or children, they can come to die. They can come to pass away. Terre des Hommes is supporting this organisation, has an outreach programme nowadays, pays for this as well, so that the children that go home get to be accompanied in their home situation as well. 

EB: The two organisations that you talked about both were working with the weaker segments in society. Do you feel a special attraction to the poor here in Brazil? Well, I think Brazil is a country that on the hand has so much potential and on the other hand has such a big debt towards this 50% of society that is poor and that has been exploited historically from 500 years ago until now. But yes, I think I should challenge my knowledge and my competence to contribute something to better the quality of life of these people. This does not mean that I feel obliged to do this my whole life. I think this is a chapter in my life that I have to do this, but later on in my life I may make other choices. EB: Do you also do this because of religious convictions or political convictions or because of your background in Holland? Well I think it is more something of the background I had. When I went to school in the ’70s and ’80s, this kind of social conscience was very present, was very strong. It was very clear in my student environment that this was a legitimate goal and nowadays I understand that it’s a bit different. But then this was one of the reasons and one of the motives why we studied. As I am an anthropologist, this element was very strongly present during my studies and I had political reasons as well, political convictions in the past. Nowadays I would not know how to formulate them. I have become much more of a democrat, a social-democrat than I was a socialist in the past. So yes, there is a paradigmatical change, but I do it for a social cause. EB: And has that change come about as a result of your experiences here in Brazil or is it simply that you have become older and wiser? Well I don’t know if it has become because I am older and wiser, if because I have become a father, because I have survived in a foreign environment. I don’t really know where it comes from. I think I have become milder and I think I have gained a strong conviction that different opinions have to be able to co-exist, including different political opinions. I think the challenge is to make them work together.

EB: Since January 2005, you’ve taken on another job. It involves desertification. Tell me about it. Yes. This is something completely different. In fact, I was invited by the German Development Service. It is a very complex field of work here. What is the situation? The situation is that environmental degradation in the interior of the northeast is reaching a point where many areas get to be deserts, where ecological processes simply stop and die. Well this has been analysed. A lot of things have been formulated that can be done about it, and there has been created a collaboration between civil society organisations, on the one hand, on the other hand the Brazilian ministry of ecology, and on the third hand the German Development Services, GTZ and DED. It’s two organisations. The three of them have to cooperate in order to put an anti-desertification programme in practice which has been formulated and which is very nice and very well done, but now it has to be done into action. I have been contracted as a consultant in order to prepare the civil society organisations for their part in this desertification programme, and this involves capacity building, information politics, a series of processes that are vital to this involvement. EB: In a sense it’s an extension of the type of work you were doing when you originally came to Brazil. Yeah, yes, it has more to do with development. The kind of work I did for Terre des Hommes had to do with taking care of a specific and very vulnerable group: children and teenagers. But that was not a very related to the development discussion, whereas I think I can contribute more within this broader development approach. This is why I feel content to have accepted this new challenge. EB: But it’s…compared to the work you were doing with children, for instance, trying to stop the desert from expanding or trying to push the desert back, it seems like quite abstract work compared to working with children. Well that depends on how you translate this challenge. On the one hand, you can say well no we have to combat desertification, yes, but the combat of desertification has to be a result of proposals for economical and social development that are adequate for the region. So what we first have to do – and what is being done – is to identify the potential of the arid region for development. Then build upon this potential, developing and bringing about the practical experiences that have proven to be effective in this environment. What is the situation? The situation is that very, very farmers, small-scale, mid-scale, large-scale farmers work with the kind of technology that is not adequate for the arid region. That is because it is technology that has been imported from other regions and OK. That is one aspect. Another aspect is that many people are so poor that they have to rely heavily on the environment where they live. They go into the woods to chop woods or to burn and cook food. Well this kind of situations, we have to try to change and we have to try to change this within a positive context, trying to bring solutions that mean development, and that not mean that people for instance have to be obeying lots of new rules without being offered new opportunities. We have to create perspectives in this arid region.

EB: How long do you plan to continue doing this? My involvement in this will take 3-5 years, but I think that the whole process of creating sustainable development in the arid northeast, this will take 20, 30 years to really get roots and really get social sustainability. EB: Are you already thinking about what you are going to do afterwards? Well I would like to be a photographer. This is why I said that I might not maintain my social activities for the rest of my life because I have another passion which is photography. And I think when passing the crucial 50 years line, which will not take so much time for me, there might be a point when I say, well, am I going to do something else, something within the arts or that might be photography? EB: And that will be here in Brazil. It might be the Caribbean. I don’t know yet. But in any case, not in Holland. I really don’t know. It depends a lot on the options that are open, the access that I have. I like Holland as well. At the moment the situation is such that I have two little children that have to grow up and that will grow up in Brazil. So for the next 10, 15 years, I will be here in Brazil. When that is over, all options are open.

Wouter van Oosterhout in conversation with Eric Beauchemin. “Under Foreign Skies” is a Radio Netherlands’ presentation. We’d like to know your thoughts about this programme, so send us an e-mail to letters@rnw.nl.

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