Yesterday’s favela tour was an eye opener. The majority of the crew signed up but with some hesitation. Is it right to visit some of the poorest areas of Rio as goggling tourists and pay to look at people who live in poverty? For most of us the visit changed our geography textbook views on what a favela actually was and gave us a fascinating insight into another world.
The guide told us that there were over 900 favelas (illegally built areas of housing) on the steep slopes of Brazil around and within the main city. We visited two that up until recently were controlled and policed by gangsters and made their money from drugs and crime. That said there was very little crime within the gangster policed favelas themselves that contained 1000s of people who worked hard, lived in a tight knit self sustaining community and were generally prevented from leaving due to their lack of money, legitimate existence of paperwork and the armed guards on the gates of the favelas. Within, the people speak a different dialect of Portuguese and built a ‘city within the city’ looking after each other and solving their own problems. Nice as this sounds their money came from drugs, there was little sanitation, schooling or freedom. The government decided that the favelas must go.
At first they tried invading or burning them. This just caused death and destruction. Then they changed tack. The army was brought in and a full military operation took over the largest favela. Leaflets were dropped telling the people to stay in their homes and the gangsters to surrender their guns or be prepared to be shot. It worked and by morning the army controlled the favela. Plumbing was installed, schools were set up and a census was taken. Importantly the people were recognised as people and given the rights to own their houses. The favelas are amazing feats of architecture! It was Andrew Kitching’s birthday yesterday and as an architect he was amazed walking through the crazy houses built one on top of another and trying to work out how on earth they stood up! Actually they stood up because one job the favela people could do (as most people couldn’t read) was to work in construction. There were lots of builders around and so to build a house they just threw a party and everybody chipped in to help. They look really odd with narrow alleys (only metre wide) running between them and up to multiple houses (5-6) stacked on top of each other but they also look solid and will probably stand for 100s of years. Concrete is the main building material. As people now own their houses they are also starting to decorate them with mosaics and paint. They look really cool and we also noticed adverts for estate agents offering to buy or sell the little one roomed wonky properties. Some of them would make quite good student accommodation and most now have Wi-Fi and a Satellite dish.
It was still a sobering experience and easy to see that not long ago when there were no sewers that the favelas must have been pretty grim places to live but now the ones that have been opened up (only about 25%) look bright, cheerful places with a really great sense of community. The guide was proud that all of the next generation of children could read and went to school and that they had health care ‘based on your British system’. Then he laughed and added ‘I hope that it is working out for you’.
The money for our tour went to fund a school.
The evening was a different affair. We went to a Samba bar to celebrate Andy’s 30th birthday. I’d like to say that we were good but we really weren’t and there were lots of toes trodden on.
Off to the beach now. As a ginger person I can’t sunbath, but I can drink cocktails under the sun shades!