By Alejandra Martins
The Steve Biko Institute in Salvador, the capital of Bahia state, aims to help black Brazilians achieve what many never dared to dream of – to enter university. Brazil boasts some of the best universities in Latin America, but passing the country’s tough university entrance exam, the vestibular, is not an option for most black Brazilians.They make up almost half the country’s population – far more than that in Bahia state – and the majority live in poverty.
“Here in Bahia, 70% of the population is of African descent, but more than 80% of those who graduate from university are white, so you can see clearly there is a situation of exclusion,” explains Lazaro Passos, a young mechanical engineer who is the institute’s project co-ordinator.
Redressing the balance
Mr Passos says the poor quality of state primary and secondary schools means black students end up with only a remote chance of passing the vestibular. Many white students, on the other hand, not only grow up in the private school system, but can also afford expensive one-year courses that prepare them for the exam.
Paradoxically, it is mostly these students who secure the coveted places in Brazil’s federal universities, which are funded by the federal government and charge no fees. The Biko institute aims to redress the balance, offering cheap courses to prepare black students. “Biko is a reference for us because of his activism as a student, and above all, because he saw education as a weapon against oppression”, explains Mr Passos. The institute’s T-shirts bear Biko’s words: “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”
The message has changed the lives of hundreds of students, like young mother Karina de Souza, who attended a course at the institute and is now a university student specialising in literature.
“We grow up seeing only white people having success as professionals. We learn at history lessons in school that black people were brought as slaves, and all they left as a legacy is traditional foods, and dances like samba or capoeira,” she says. “Here at the Biko institute we learn about many blacks who succeeded through education.”
All the students at the Biko institute attend lessons in “citizenship and black consciousness”, where they learn about great black Brazilian engineers such as Andre Rebouca or Teodoro Sampaio.
“Black people need to learn about these figures and many others. It is part of the process of raising their self-esteem,” says Mr Passos. “We realized if we don’t work at this very deep level, students never aim to be doctors, or engineers, because they believe they can only apply for less prestigious courses.”
Bahia was at the heart of the slave trade that shaped Brazilian history. It is estimated that four million slaves were sent across the Atlantic to shed their sweat and blood in the fields of Brazil, eight times the number of slaves shipped to the US. Their legacy is alive in every corner of Bahia.
“Brazil was one of the last countries to abolish slavery in 1888 – you can imagine how this system moulded society. Even now, the black population is suffering the consequences,” says Mr Passos.
Students at the institute come from poor backgrounds and most of them are the first ever in their family to aim for university. “My mother worked very hard washing clothes, selling food on the street. She couldn’t finish primary school, but made sure all her kids completed secondary education. I was working from an early age, helping my mother,” says Karina.
George Oliveira’s future also changed thanks to the Biko institute. When he arrived there he had abandoned his studies and was working, like everyone else in his family, as a cook. Today he is studying economics at university. He is convinced his country has to overcome what he says is a disguised form of apartheid.
“There are no laws here saying this place is for whites only and that place is for blacks only, but if you go to the rich neighbourhoods you see whites and if you go to the slums you see mainly blacks.
“Even in the media, the soap operas seem to depict life in Europe rather than Brazil.”
The education ministry acknowledges that the exclusion of black students is a serious problem in Brazil. Eliezer Pacheco, president of the National Institute of Educational Research, says: “Poverty in Brazil has a color, and that color is black. That’s why the Ministry of Education has been strongly defending the introduction of quotas for black students at university. Even though universities are autonomous according to the constitution and there is a lot of resistance, some universities have started adopting this system.”
The Biko institute enrols about 300 students a year, of whom about 35% enter university. I put it to Lazaro Passos that this is a low success rate. “Students come here after 11 years of bad schooling, often with their self-esteem at rock bottom. We reach out to human beings and that’s what matters. We always leave our mark.”Often we meet former students who after many years are back at their studies. Deep down the message remained like a delayed time bomb: education is the answer”.
The legacy of Steve Biko has empowered people like Karina and George. Karina is making sure her five-year-old son grows up proud of being black. George, the first of his family to enter university, wants to become a professor. For Lazaro Passos, what is at stake is not only the future of students such as George, but the development of Brazil.
“If there are no black students at university then we are excluding minds that could be thinking up a new and more competitive Brazil,” he says.
“It’s not only a loss for the black population, but for the whole of this country. If blacks don’t have access to university then Brazil is excluding 45%* of its own people.”
* – At the time of the article, Afro-Brazilians were estimated to make up 45% of Brazil’s population. The last census in 2010 confirmed that this population made up 50.7% of the total.
Source: BBC News