From a front-line community to the front line of a movement: Raphael

João Raphael Gomes is the volunteer coordinator for the 350 team in Salvador, Brazil. He saw intense droughts and its impacts when he was a child in the middle of the Bahia state, but when he moved to Salvador, he faced periods of extreme rainfalls and floods. Then he got familiar with the concept of “climate change”… and decided it was time to act.

RaphaelI was born in the interior of Bahia state, in a town called Jacobina. I have always known and experienced the power of nature, ever since I was a child. I grew up with living with my mother and my grandmother.  Some family (uncles and cousins) lived in a region that’s susceptible to dry weather bouts, where seeing dead animals that have died from heat is a familiar scene. I used to visit my family there, as they only lived a few kilometres away. You can see the heat reflect off the ground.   

Despite the drought, there was still natural beauty in that area. I can remember the beautiful sunsets and starry nights, as if the sky was so close we could touch it. The vegetation seemed so subterranean, with the roots of the plants remaining above the ground, nestled in the sand, which is very typical of that area.  There weren’t a lot of gadgets around and I remember meeting others at night time to listen to radios and much later, when it arrived, to watch TV.

I really liked observing caterpillars, there were many of them all over the place. They used to choose some dry straw to make their cocoon and then they would transform into butterflies. They were the true flowers of that place.  

Life around there was anything but easy. Often the sun would be so intense it would damage most of the edible crops and all that was left were cacti. We had to share these with some of the few remaining animals. The cactus doesn’t taste of much, I didn’t like it much.  We would walk a lot, mainly when the water ran out. There was only one big well that was a long way away, with brackish water. You needed to boil it first, before filling up clay filters for drinking.  As much as my grandmother’s and my situation was better than my relatives who lived there, my grandma always took me to that region and until this day I remain grateful for the experience.

Now the federal government has installed individual wells for the people who live there so that they can collect rain water. Social programmes like the Bolsa Família are also in effect, minimising the previous impacts.

I’ve been through periods of drought, months even, without there being a single drop of water. During the day it’s quite hot and at night very cold. In Jacobina I remember my grandmother making food and arranging water for us to take with us.  I never asked myself why things seemed to get worse for them as each year went by. Perhaps due to the fact that I was a child and hadn’t really experienced any other environment or a big city. I also don’t have much to write about this period of time, I was quite young at the time and much of what happened was eventually forgotten.

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Years later, my mother tried her luck by going to work in the city, live in my grandfather’s house (my grandparents separated shortly before I was born, and my mother from my father too) and it didn’t take long before I moved to Salvador.

My grandmother continues to live in the interior of the state. She’s quite a strong person, having suffered in her childhood, working since she was young on a farm and having married early, which was typical of that time.  She didn’t really let me play a lot with other children, so I spent a lot of time with my books, imaginary friends and being occupied with the routine of school. I spent many afternoons reading Reinações by Nazarinho, the Theatre of Shadows by Ofélia, Vinicius de Moraes and a collection of plays by Maria Clara Machado.

All this rigid education made my integration into city life quite difficult in the beginning. I was very shy and I spoke in a way that was typical of people who are from the interior.

What really stood out for me living in the capital were the intense periods of rain during May and June. For a few years I came to hate the rain, which was so important for my relatives.  It was difficult to sleep and wake up with your feet soaked in rainwater and sewage, that smell… It’s very difficult for a child.  Often my toys would slip around the room, and I would wake up in the middle of the night. Throughout this my family tried to be strong- we were each other’s support, each other’s rock.  

I remember this one particular time when the rain was so intense that I saw my grandfather cry for the first time, which really moved us. We were all in this tough situation, facing a man who for us was our pillar, and even then, as a child, I understood the significance of that moment. The next day would be clean-up day. Before going to school I would help to clear out some of the water that hadn’t drained away and when I returned from school most of our stuff was still in the sun, trying to dry and so we could get back to our routine.  Fortunately we didn’t suffer any illnesses because of this.

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As time passed, our family experienced a more stable period. However, we observed scenes of droughts and torrential rain, which brought back the feelings of vulnerability and solidarity with those who suffered these bouts of intense weather. We also felt some anger, as a lot of what occurred could have been avoided during the flooding.  There’s a strong, life-long connection between those who suffered from the floods.

Years later, when I was older and had adapted to the city life, I understood all what had happened and it bothered me to see the same issues, not being able to do anything for others.

One day, I checked my inbox and found an email from a man named Bill. He wrote of extreme weather events, explaining the need for responsibility and calling young people to action.  Without a doubt that was one of the most incredible days of my life. Reading his email gave me goosebumps, as I suddenly knew that I could contact other people who shared similar concerns- this was something I could never have imagined.  Without much hesitation I decided to respond to the email without really knowing what to do. But I was sure it was the direction I had to take to channel my need to do something for others, to share what I had learned over the years and to fight for change.  

Weeks later, I was surprised by another email from a national coordinator named Paula Collet, who introduced herself and asked about my plans and whether I needed help with my first global action as a coordinator in 2010.  That was the moment my contact with 350 was established, and every day since then I feel motivated to work for a more just and sustainable world, to reach people across the globe whilst trying to reach out to new people.

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I never thought that my story could have encouraged others to act. I was pleased to get to know Heather’s projects (The Million Person Project) and to see my friends from 350 hugging me and being moved by her.  It’s incredible to think that in each story lies one thing we can all relate to, that moves and unites us.  With each difficult story and experience you can prove that there is hope for improvement, and that we can count on many other people for this. It’s as if all those negative experiences and feelings from childhood could be channeled into hope and inspiration. A story like mine is so public.  I don’t know where things will end up, but I feel strong and happy to be on this path, fighting for action with so many by my side.

 

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