The quiet revolutionary

Mathias Maurer

Ute Craemer is on tour through Germany. I meet her for an interview in Stuttgart central station. The 75-year-old is standing at the platform with her trolley bag. Age and appearance camouflage this person and her mission perfectly. We go to a café and start talking, a conversation which gradually reveals the mighty life-time achievement and will power of this conspicuously inconspicuous person.

It all started through a living room initiative with ten, twenty, then a hundred children in her home in a favela of São Paulo. At the time Ute Craemer was still working as a teacher in the Waldorf school there. But in Brazil that was an exclusive world of people who could afford to think about education. She wanted to do something for the underpriviledged, for the people suffering from violence, poverty and social neglect. In 1979 she founded the Associação Comunitária Monte Azul in a wooden hut without water, light or infrastructure which today has grown into a large social enterprise with more than 1,000 staff and which benefits about 20,000 people in three favelas of São Paulo.

But the story of this exceptional woman starts much earlier. Ute Craemer was born in Weimar in 1938. Her grandfather, Professor Hermann Craemer, still knew Rudolf Steiner personally from his activities in the branch of the Anthroposophical Society in Düsseldorf. His reported statement that anthroposophy would fail in its development if it did not unite with the impulse of social threefolding embedded itself deeply in the memory. Ute Craemer’ father was a professor at Graz Technical University and after the War the family was expelled from Austria, like all citizens of the German Reich, and moved to Belgrade. Some years later the family moved on to Alexandria in Egypt, then Lahore in Pakistan. Already as a child, Ute Craemer learnt various languages, attended almost a dozen different schools and personally encountered the underbelly of colonial imperialism.

Her home lay on the Great Trunk Road, the ancient 2,500-kilometre-long trade route linking India Pakistan and Bangladesh, on which it was not just goods and military equipment which passed but also numerous refugees. She returned to Germany alone in 1956 as a class 11 pupil, her family followed later. Inspired by Hermann Hesse, she asked herself after graduating from school how she could combine meaningful work with her urge for self-realisation. During this period and while she was studying foreign languages, she participated in international community service deployments through the Society for Transnational Cooperation in Berlin and France. Her political and humanist awareness was awoken by the worker priest Christien Corré, who was also active in the Algerian independence movement. Disillusionment set in during her time as a translator with Ford in Cologne and she decided to go into development work. The German Development Service sent her precisely in the opposite direction from her favoured destination of Asia, namely to Brazil; or, to be precise, to Londrina (Little London), an up-and-coming young coffee-growing town, to help with “slum clearance”. The warm welcome by the inhabitants of the favela and a spontaneous invitation to a wedding turned into a key moment – she was immediately immersed in the midst of pulsating Brazilian life.

When she returned to Bremen two years later, it was clear to her that she wanted to work with children. She went on a practice placement at the local Waldorf school and studied Waldorf education in Stuttgart; then she returned to São Paulo. There she taught for nine years as a class and language teacher until she could no longer close her eyes to the “other Brazil”. She wanted to help the people through education because it is people, Ute Craemer says, who change the world. She risked her life in the battle for human dignity and self-determination in a lawless neighbourhood. In 2000 she was the victim of an armed attack at her home. She was a social irritant in a town ruled by drug gangs. For weeks she was intimidated and found shelter with friends in the town. Her motto, “the most important thing is to believe in people, even the most wretched”, was severely put to the test.

After a “year out” in Europe and Asia, she returned to Brazil, not to say goodbye but to intensify her work.

Today Monte Azul offers crèches, kindergartens, after-school care, a Waldorf school, a music school and workshops for baking, carpentry and tailoring which train more than 1,300 children and adolescents. Then there is an outpatient clinic, the obstetrics centre, “Casa Angela” preventive and after-care, and the “Mainumby” (hummingbird) training seminar for social education which is attended by hundreds of people. Alongside the 500 volunteers from all over the world, 250 Brazilians from the area work permanently in Monte Azul. Ute Craemer collaborates with the Brazilian health ministry which has been setting up family health programmes since 2001 and organises numerous workshops. A total of 300,000 people are reached in Monte Azul through these programmes.

She founded the “Alliance for Childhood” in Brazil, two anthroposophical study groups, strengthened contact with related initiatives and foundations and is working on a “curiculo social” for the Brazilian Waldorf schools. All of this costs money, about 1.5 million euros a month. A large part is financed through state programmes, some of it through foundations and support groups. The administrative structure of this “town within a town” is flat. There are commissions, a joint weekly meeting of the leading coordination groups of the three favelas and, once a month, an “integration day” which is attended by all staff.

Ute Craemer has taken a less central role in her initiative since 2000 because she has new plans. She is in close contact with another pioneer of international anthroposophical social work. Together with Truus Geraets from Holland, who does valuable work above all in the slums of South Africa, she wants to heighten an awareness of “human development” in the world’s regions of poverty and revitalise the social impulse of anthroposophy through joint congresses similar to the World Social Forum.

Ute Craemer feels connected with the Manichean impulse. Attentively she addresses herself to crucial events and human encounters – irrespective of nation, ethnic origin, status and language. As a person of our time, she transforms the outer circumstances of life “from inside out”.

We are back at the platform. I take leave of Ute Craemer with her trolley bag. She seems to possess little else. Her mission goes out into the world with her.