With help from a children’s samba school, Dondara finds her own beat

 "Growing up, you’re constantly told you can’t. You can’t because you’re black or poor or born in a dangerous neighborhood,” says Dondara. (Courtesy of Tess Thomas / Malala Fund)

"Growing up, you’re constantly told you can’t. You can’t because you’re black or poor or born in a dangerous neighborhood,” says Dondara. (Courtesy of Tess Thomas / Malala Fund)

In Carnival, the 21-year-old student finds academic support and a celebration of her Afro-Brazilian heritage.

21-year-old Brazilian student Dondara wants you to forget everything you thought you knew about Carnival. Yes, there are fabulous costumes, dancing and floats. But the festival is so much more than that to her.

Dondara is the product of the lesser known side of Carnival — its philanthropic side. At age 9 she began taking free classes at the Pimpolhos da Grande Rio Samba School (Kids of Grande Rio Samba School). Pimpolhos provides students from the neighbourhood of Duque de Caxias with free workshops in art and dance, courses in English and Portuguese and scholarships.

“Growing up, you’re constantly told you can’t. You can’t because you’re black or poor or born in a dangerous neighborhood,” she says. But after attending Pimpolhos, she began to imagine a different future for herself.

 Dondara explaining the history of carnival during a tour of Grande Rio Samba School. (Courtesy of Tess Thomas / Malala Fund)

Dondara explaining the history of carnival during a tour of Grande Rio Samba School. (Courtesy of Tess Thomas / Malala Fund)

Through Pimpolhos classes, Dondara became fluent in English. She is now enrolled in university and studying international relations. Half of her tuition is paid for by scholarship — the other half she pays for using the money she makes as an English-speaking tour guide. Dondara aced her most recent set of university exams. “I love that quote: ‘I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams,’” she says of her accomplishments with a smile.

“We are trying to raise good people through the arts,” explained Camilla Soares, President of the Pimpolhos da Grande Rio Samba School. “Carnival is not what people think it is,” she continued. 800 students benefit from Pimpolhos programmes every week. The children are required to show they are enrolled in school in order to participate in Pimpolhos. During Carnival, they perform during the special family-friendly day parade with floats that have teachable themes like “Recycle!” or “Respect your parents.”

In addition to the support she received from Pimpolhos, Dondara loves Carnival because it provides her with the opportunity to celebrate her Afro-Brazilian roots. In a country where racial discrimination runs rampant, there are few opportunities for her to feel proud of her heritage. “You can’t play with us because you’re darker,” Dondara remembers hearing as a kid.

 Dondara with King and Camilla Soares, President of the Pimpolhos da Grande Rio Samba School.(Courtesy of Tess Thomas / Malala Fund)

Dondara with King and Camilla Soares, President of the Pimpolhos da Grande Rio Samba School.(Courtesy of Tess Thomas / Malala Fund)

But during Carnival, the country pays tribute to an important piece of Afro-Brazilian culture: samba — a form of music and dance known as the heartbeat of Brazil. Its origins can be traced back to West African slaves brought to Brazil in the 16th century. During Carnival, the streets are filled with the rhythmic beats and lively dancing. Tributes to the mother of modern samba, an Afro-Brazilian woman nicknamed Tia Ciata, are a highlight in most parades.

And so for Dondara, Carnival is more than just a great party. It has given her the tools she needs to flourish academically and provides her with an opportunity to celebrate her culture. “I start crying the moment I see the crowds,” Dondara shares shaking her head, at a loss for words when asked about the pride she feels while parading with Grande Rio. “I just can’t describe it.”


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tess Thomas is editor of Assembly, a digital publication and newsletter from Malala Fund. She loves books, cats and french fries.