A group of Neu’s family and friends were doing some work on the beach front house where Neu and his brothers store their fishing gear. The house was Neu’s families home, until the incoming sea forced them to relocate further inland. Someone said that the house was very old, and there followed a long discussion on just how old it was; who could remember it when they were a child and so on.
I grew up in North London, we lived in the ground floor flat of a big Victorian house, built over a hundred years ago, and likely to stand for another hundred I should think.
I knew that the house on the beach wasn’t going to be anything like that old, but was surprised when it was agreed that it was probably around thirty years old. I don’t know why I was surprised, possibly because the house is in such a state of disrepair, and was pretty bad even when Neu’s family were still living there, I guess I had expected it to be older. The maresia (sea wind) is very cruel to any construction, corroding metal and concrete alike and prematurely aging or destroying everything.
Neu’s old home is one of the oldest brick built buildings in the village, it was originally built by the fish buyer as his centre of business, until he moved further up the beach, selling the building to Neu’s father, who made it into their home. Only fifteen years ago, most of the houses in Prainha were built with timber frames (cut from the forest), and palm frond thatch from the coconut trees for the walls and roof. There are still a few of these traditional buildings in use in the village.
Recently one of our neighbours, Valeria, was building a new Casa de Palha (house of palm fronds), when it is completed the old one will be pulled down. Valeria explained that the houses have to be re-built every two years, after that time the thatch is finished and the timber is weakened by insects. We are approaching the rainy season, during which we get torrential downpours, obviously it makes sense to have the house built before the rains come.
Valeria’s house has a terracotta tiled roof (as do all the houses), she say’s they are better than the palm fronds which let in too much water. The floor is left as sand, to be swept daily both inside and outside the house; it keeps it as clean as possible and helps keep the sand fleas down.
Valeria does have a brick and concrete built toilet and shower, this was built by the municipal, as part of a state wide scheme to improve the sanitation for people without an internal bathroom. Valeria cant afford a brick built house to tack onto her bathroom. She said with a smile and a shrug, that for people like her, a casa de palha is good, better than nothing and indeed there is a skill to building and maintaining one, of which she is rightly proud.
When Valeria first came here, over sixteen years ago, virtually all the houses were like hers and there was no electricity in the village. I said I couldn’t imagine how hard life must have been for people then, in all this heat with no refrigeration. Mostly cooking on open fires, with all that thatch, house fires were common.
Valeria said that in some ways it was good, people talked to each other more, told stories to pass the night (it gets dark here at six, every night.), now they just watch TV, but yes, life was hard. Not only was there no electricity but no road, to reach Canto Verde you had to take the dirt track from the main road (about 7 km ) and then walk over the dunes, cars couldn’t pass over them.
If anyone was ill and needed to go to hospital, it was very difficult. There were no telephones in the village, Valeria said you had to run from house to house trying to get help to carry the person over the dunes, then find some way of getting them to the main road. Women mostly had their babies at home, often with no one in attendance.
The mother of my son’s best friend, had her first child when she was thirteen, her second two years later and so on until she had given birth ten times. I asked her if she had been afraid, she was after all so young. She said in a sing song way that no, she had just been playing when she felt her pains come, then she went into the house and had the baby, it was all very quick and it didn’t occur to her to call anyone else. It was only later that my son told me her first two babies died at birth.
When Luan was born in London, I had a home birth, as I had done with two of my previous three babies. Neu, who had come over to be with me, helped the midwife to carry all her equipment up the stairs to my flat. He was impressed with all her equipment, saying that in the village when a woman calls the midwife, if she comes, she arrives with her hands flapping (empty handed). Hardly anyone has their baby at home in the village now. As soon as labour starts, an ambulance is called and the women are taken to the local hospital in Beberibe.
The coming of electricity to Prainha about 15 years ago heralded many changes . The boats are still built by hand but electric tools are now common. Most of the houses are built of bricks, and more and more people have small electric motors to pump the water up. Ironically, some years back, many people had small hand built wooden windmills to draw the water up, completely ecologically sound. Once the electric motors became available, the windmills went out of fashion. Without the motors or windmills, water has to be laboriously pumped up by hand.
Nearly everybody has a sound system, a TV and many have a fridge. It’s interesting that (judging from all the parabolic satellite dishes in the gardens) more people have a TV than have a fridge. This is a traditionally macho society, unfortunately some men here still treat the women like second class citizens. The TV is seen as the man’s property and therefore important, even necessary. A fridge is of much more benefit to a woman, who is usually the one responsible for the making and preserving of food. Fridges are definitely classed as luxury goods
TV and overly loud sound systems aside, the changes are mostly for the good. We have street lighting, although we at the edge of the village, are not yet covered (not that I’m sorry, I love the pitch black nights and we get the most marvellous star filled sky).
The village school is on line and the children are all learning about computers, their uses and the internet, and virtually every family has at least one mobile phone, making communication a lot easier.
When I first came here in 2002 there was just one public phone in the village, and it only became possible to have a fixed line in the house two years ago. It then took another year to get it to work properly and we still cant have the internet in the house, but one day, one day.
There are many people in the village who have never learnt to read and write, yet they are in the modern age with their mobile phones. Their children are not only literate but computer literate too. The other day when I passed Valeria’s new palm frond house, she was building up her cooking fire, a mobile phone pressed to her ear. She has no electrical appliances in her house, a line strung from her neighbours gives her one electric bulb.
Not for the first time, I was struck by how the village straddles the old world and the new.
©Claire Pattison Valente 2009