Sede (sed-ee)”means “headquarters” in Portuguese, but the word has much more meaning than that for anyone who worked with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), a non-governmental organization, in Recife, Brazil. Sede refers to the house that served as a central meeting point for all MCC volunteers in northeastern Brazil. It was a place to share a delicious communal meal, sleep for a night, do one’s laundry, use the phone and Internet, borrow a book from the library, visit with other expats — essentially, have a home away from home whenever necessary.
The sede was where I was taken straight from the airport when I arrived over seven years ago, eager to start a year of volunteer work as an English, art, and music teacher for a children’s after-school program. It was one of the first words I learned, explained to me by the program coordinator John, whose normal English name became a strange contortion of nasally vowels in Portuguese — João. “The sede is where it’s at!” he told us newcomers, proudly showing off the gate as we bounced up in our Volkswagen Kombi, thoroughly shaken by the size and depth of potholes in the dirt road (despite being in the middle of the city). Lila, a Boxer whose fierce face belied her passive nature, met us at the door and we were ushered through a lush front yard of greenery into a large, airy house with a patio in the back shaded by a huge mango tree. I met Solange, the sede’s cook, who was pounding passionfruit pulp to make juice for our lunch. She taught me my second word: maracujá.
I’m remembering the sede today because, as I write, its furniture is being emptied, the offices are being cleared, and most of the people who work there have left. Last year, MCC decided to close its Brazil program after over forty years of invaluable work, including micro-finance programs, water cistern construction, and education. So the sede’s life is coming to an end. It makes me sad that I can’t see it once more before its sign is scraped off the door and the lock is turned for the last time. I have so many wonderful memories from that place.
One of my funniest ones comes from the third day I’d been staying there with my American friends Laura and Teresa. We were all alone in the sede for the first time and felt a bit nervous, even though Lila was there to protect us. Around 6 p.m., when it was already dark, the doorbell rang. We stared at each other in terror. Anyone who worked for MCC had a key, so clearly it was someone else. None of us spoke Portuguese yet, so asking who it was was a daunting challenge.
Laura was the bravest and headed out to the gate. When she came back, she looked pale. “It’s a man, and I think he said, ‘I don’t have a gun and I won’t shoot you.'”
Teresa and I stared at her, then Teresa, who was raised in Ecuador and speaks fluent Spanish, went out to verify because Laura’s translation seemed a bit farfetched. She came back a minute later. “It was just the pharmacy delivery guy dropping something off!” We had a good laugh after that.
Another wonderful memory is sitting on the back patio under the shade of the mango tree, playing improvised duets with my friend Felipe, who is an incredible guitarist. He’s the kind of guy who can pick up any instrument and make it sound effortless. He plays forró, bossa nova, samba, MPB, anything. That particular day, we’d given up on my guitar lesson and I’d pulled out my violin to goof around with some classic Brazilian pieces, like Ana Carolina’s Catedral, Tom Jobim’s Corcovado, and some Cazuza. We alternated between playing and singing, laughing at my pronunciation, just enjoying ourselves and the music.
MCC’s director for Latin America happened to be visiting that week and he came out to sit on the patio and listen to the music wafting through the afternoon air. Months later, back in the US for our incoming conference after a year away, I heard from some others that he’d told the story of that afternoon, citing it as a highlight of his year because of what it represented — a perfect cultural union of two young people from such drastically different backgrounds, connecting through a shared love of music.
I’ll never forget the fresh mangos, just fallen off the tree. Jura, the handyman, showed me how to mash them up, kneading the pulp beneath the skin before slitting open the bottom to suck it all out. I’ll never forget the vast quantities of baked oatmeal that Laura, Teresa, and I always made for our late-morning Saturday breakfasts and Jura’s thickly sweet black coffee that washed it down. There was the sound of the water-seller ringing his bell outside the gate in the morning, the padaria (the bakery) down the street that sold the most delicious sugary egg buns, and the maternity hospital at the corner where we waited for the Mangueira bus to take us downtown or to Boa Viagem beach. I’ll never forget taking shelter in the sede after being robbed in the dark street just outside the front gate, my heart pounding as I latched the heavy gate behind me and mourned the loss of my dignity moreso than my 30 reais.
It’s the end of an era. When I return for another visit, it will be sad to walk down Rua Antônio Paes de Andrade and know that there’s nothing there for me anymore. I wonder who will move in there now and whether they’ll have any idea of the memories compressed within those walls. At the least, I feel tremendously blessed for having experienced the sede when it was at its peak, full of wonderful, interesting, adventurous people who dedicated their lives to doing invaluable work.