NGO Thydêwá: Connecting Communities - Leeds International Festival
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NGO Thydêwá: Connecting Communities

Leeds International Festival 18 28 April 2018

This momentous event saw some of Brazil’s indigenous peoples make the long journey over to the UK, to discuss how technologies have impacted their lives.

Technologies have been transformative; empowering these groups to fight for their human rights against a government which can often overlook them, as well as sharing information about the culture and traditions which they upkeep, as north-eastern Brazil’s indigenous peoples.

In particular, they spoke about the ways in which the NGO Thydêwá has given them a digital arsenal from which to increase their visibility, fight prejudice and lobby the government.

Intercultural communication was key: the NGO’s founder Sebastián Gerlic, alongside translators from Leeds University’s School of Languages, Cultures and Societies, were on hand to facilitate the dialogue, but it was imperative that some members of the community could be in Leeds, telling their stories for themselves.

As well as sharing their experiences in a dialogue with attendees, comparing their stories, and amplifying their voices, the event enabled members of these indigenous communities to display artworks in an exhibition which stemmed from their indigenous digital arts, encouraging further intercultural interaction beyond the main event.

NGO Thydêwá have been empowering these communities by training and equipping them with digital tools and technologies for over fifteen years. They have had their actions recognised by a series of different prizes, both nationally in Brazil and across the broader, international stage.

Credit: Photo credit: Sebastián Gerlic
Photo credit: Sebastián Gerlic

NGO Thydêwá also run an ethno-journalism site called Indios Online, which connects the diverse indigenous peoples of north-eastern Brazil so that they can run educational networks and support each other in their fight for their rights, as well as sharing information about environmental sustainability and even selling their craftworks.

Because of the uptake of the initial project, NGO Thydêwá has now launched a current project specifically aimed at indigenous women, and the production of indigenous, digital art.

The event was delivered by both Sebastián Gerlic, the director of NGO Thydêwá, and Maria das Dores de Oliveira, of the Pankararu community, facilitated by Dr Thea Pitman, of the University’s School of Languages, Cultures and Societies.

The NGO has created a documentary – Indígenas digitais – and this was screened during the event (in Portuguese, with English subtitles). The film really explores the communities’ use of digital technologies, what impact they have on the communities’ lives, and what they mean to them.

Of course, access to technology can also be a burden, taking members of the community away from their inherited cultural customs and traditions and towards the worldwide assimilation that international dialogue can create. Sebastián Gerlic tackled this early on with the NGO Thydêwá project, arming its users with the powers of the Internet, but warning them to its vices and distractions.

Credit: Sebastián Gerlic at Leeds International Festival 17
Sebastián Gerlic at Leeds International Festival 17

The talk which followed the screening was majoritively between Gerlic and Maria das Dores, with Dr Pitman interpreting, and saw an intense discussion of the communities themselves, their marginalisation by mainstream Brazilian society and their struggle for cultural survival in a modern world which prizes novelty and ‘Westernisation’. It also highlighted how digital technologies have amplified their voices and enhanced their visibility – despite the inevitable mountain they still have to climb to become successfully visible in a digital climate where he who shouts the loudest gets the largest online elbow room.

NGO Thydêwá has regular community meetings in Brazil – one of which, in May 2017, sought to discuss the ways in which the indigenous peoples of 8 northeastern communities could collaborate to ensure that cultural practices remain alive, and committed to undertaking face-to-face and distance education over three years which aims to strengthen their cultures, improving aspects and accessibility of education, citizenship and sustainability within their communities.

The event allowed their physical presence, in a way that communities of their small size usually aren’t allowed, as they are overlooked and swept aside. It underlined this with the surrounding exhibit of work showing their aesthetic presence, through the digital photography artworks which adorned the walls of the event. Exchange, here, was key – our lives in Leeds may seem to distant and foreign to even begin to comprehend the struggles and cultures present in the indigenous communities of northeastern Brazil, but actually, a dialogue focussing on the sharing of opinion, feeling, experience, practices and knowledge was mutually informative. The members of these communities, despite the hardship of a life in which they fight for their traditional customs and inheritance every single day, were wise and generous in their gifts, discussing ways to resist, re-exist and embrace a culture of peace. Cultural production, cultural promotion, cultural diversity, creativity, solidarity and innovation were key strands which ran throughout a dialogue which has succeeded in knitting an unlikely partnership between a powerhouse, industrial city in the north of England and the indigenous communities of rural north eastern Brazil.