The University of International Integration of Afro-Brazilian Lusofonia (Unilab) emerged with the proposal to integrate students from Portuguese-speaking African countries and Brazilians and was created in 2010 in Redenção (CE) and in 2014 opened the Malian campus in São Francisco do Conde (BA). The Bahian unit is home to around 1,000 students, 96% of which are black – being the campus of a public university with the highest percentage of black and mixed-race students.
Despite its representativeness, the project left a lot to be desired and today it is on the verge of collapse, with the closure of the university restaurant and the suspension of classes, the result of years of abandonment and attempts to undermine the project of an education that promotes integration between Brazil and Africa.
The creation of new public universities throughout Brazil allowed greater access to higher education and the internalization of public education policies in the PT governments (2002 to 2016). Unilab has an even bolder proposal: to promote the integration of African students.
Several mistakes, however, made the project even more challenging. One of them was the choice of São Francisco do Conde, a small city of around 35 thousand inhabitants, to host a university with an international vocation. This means that students have little or no chance of employment.
Another was that the university had its headquarters in Ceará and another unit in Bahia, quite distant and unconnected, causing the São Francisco do Conde campus, called Malês, to be left to its own devices, without funds, attention or incentives.
There are six undergraduate courses and one master’s degree. Among the students, there are quilombolas, residents of Recôncavo Bahia and around 400 Africans, from countries such as Guinea Bissau, Angola and Mozambique.
They receive aid amounts to stay at university, called the National Student Assistance Plan (PNAES), in the amount of R$530. The amount has been the same since 2010 and has never been adjusted. This means that students need help from their families or live in precarious conditions. There is also the possibility of scientific initiation and extension scholarships, but these do not reach everyone.
Indigenous and quilombola university students, who had a scholarship of R$900 until the beginning of the year, had an adjustment and today receive R$1,400. In this context, the University Restaurant is the main policy for students to stay at the university, as they pay R$1.10 for both lunch and dinner.
The complaints, however, were constant: little food, repetition of dishes, cold food and even the trigger that was the presence of larvae in the meals. The company that was responsible for the restaurant decided to terminate the contract at the end of August. Since then, food insecurity has been a constant in the lives of students.
They began to protest, occupied the rectory and classes were stopped. The situation became worse because 89 new students had arrived, who had not yet managed to go through all the bureaucracy to receive student aid and were 100% dependent on the restaurant’s food.
After more than 12 days without food and classes, emergency funding from the Ministry of Education (MEC) arrived. “There is a great disregard for the unity of Bahia. Structural and institutional discrimination. We are an undesirable campus, it seems that everything is done to make it dehydrated and disappear due to starvation”, says a member of the faculty, who asks not to be identified.
The resources for investments seem to prove the attempt to dehydrate the campus, which did not receive a single cent either in 2022 or in 2021. According to professors, today the campus does not receive funds for seminars, travel tickets or other extra activities. The money transferred is only for personnel expenses, basic maintenance of water, electricity and internet bills and minimal office supplies.
The Ceará campus has university residence, a decent restaurant, and campus infrastructure, which is befitting a university. This is because in São Francisco do Conde classes take place in the structure of an elementary school provided by the city hall.
The university building began construction in 2014 and the company abandoned the work after discovering irregularities. With the arrival of the Jair Bolsonaro government, the situation worsened. After pressure from the academic community, amendment funds totaling R$2 million each were won twice, and which would guarantee the construction of 10 annexed rooms, but the money ended up remaining in both situations on the Ceará campus.
This year, the MEC released around R$10.5 million to resume work on the university building, which is scheduled to be ready in 2025. Among the absurdities is the fact that the university has obtained 50 air conditioners that would be installed in the new building and today they remain in boxes waiting for the work to be completed, while classes are ventilated by fans in the middle of the Bahian region.
In total there are 90 teachers, all with doctorates, and who manage to guarantee, despite adversity, that all courses receive grades 4 and 5 in MEC assessments, in addition to a good approval rate in postgraduate studies and return to their countries of origin. in a position to get jobs in the areas of study.
“We need to make an assessment of what this university represents as a reparation for African students, so that they can return to their countries with quality education. It is also an opportunity to think about a symmetrical relationship with African countries with a policy of rapprochement and exchange” , says one of the Unilab professors.
One of the alternatives for strengthening Unilab’s Malê campus is to transform it into UFAB – Universidade Federal África Brasil, proposing its emancipation. The proposal is in line with the internalization and internationalization project with countries on the African continent and would remove dependence and invisibility in relation to the headquarters in Ceará.
Wealth and precariousness in Recôncavo Baiano
São Francisco do Conde is 70 kilometers from Salvador and is considered the blackest city in Brazil, with around 92% of the population identifying as black and brown. The city also receives royalties from an oil refinery that belonged to Petrobrás and is now owned by the Saudi Arabian company Acelen. This means that the municipality has the 7th highest GDP per capita in Brazil. The money, however, is not visible in the city’s structure, which is quite simple and also fails to offer conditions for African students to stay.
Therefore, the possibility of basic survival of the university is lacking, as it receives no structure, resources or attention. But it is an example of the application of Law 10,639/13, which makes Afro-Brazilian and indigenous education mandatory.
Furthermore, around 90% of graduates are the first generation of people in their family to go to university. In 2017, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was out of office, participated in the university’s graduation as patron. The images were used in his last campaign for Palácio do Planalto, but his management still owes more attention to the university.
I had the opportunity to be at Unilab twice and I was able to witness the power of having so many African students, speaking different languages, from different origins, exchanging with students from Recôncavo Baiano, quilombolas and indigenous people.
And I was also able to see up close the precariousness to which they were relegated, but how they overcome all of this through learning that enables new opportunities and connections. Now, we need to push for the spotlight to turn there and for this connection between Africa and Brazil to be valued and encouraged in what is one of the main regions of the African diaspora, which is the Recôncavo Baiano. Unilab on the Malês campus needs us!
According to the Pro-Rector of Planning and Finance, Antônio Célio Ferreira dos Santos, Unilab created an emergency allowance of R$575 for each student until another contract is signed with a new company to offer meals to students. . The first installment was deposited last Tuesday (12). Furthermore, management “is taking all necessary measures to charge and penalize the company that unilaterally suspended the provision of meals.”
According to the pro-rector, the university is unable to meet all requests for seminars and extra activities, but guarantees that there is “equal treatment for all” and informs that the budget foreseen for 2023 for the headquarters and Malê campus is R $4.9 million, without specifying the specific amount that will be allocated to investments in Bahia. “Rector Roque Albuquerque is in Brasília to deal with specific issues on the campus, where he requests that the necessary resources be sent to maintain student support while hiring a new restaurant company, as well as obtaining more supplements to meet other demands of the campus”, he informs.