2. Oct, 2015

Rocinha raw and sizzling

I had fancied seeing a favela. When in Los Angeles I wanted to see 'Skid Row' more than I wanted to see Malibu Beach or the art galleries or Rodeo Drive, just to see it for myself, to see if it really did exist and what was happening to support the people there. I was visiting favelas in Brazil for the same reasons. 

If I am honest I wasn't sure what a favela was. What did it mean? I had the facts and the history, but what about social policy and politics. 

The houses were built by the people for the people - free from rent and government control. The people being the indigenous or slaves or immigrants from Paraguay or ex servicemen and women who were given land to build on. 10,000,000 people arrived in Brazil in a short space of time and they needed to be housed somewhere, safely and quickly - similar to the immigrants and their housing crises worldwide today. But what did this look like in practice? 

I felt like a reporter of yore as I sped on the back of a motorbike to one of the most notorious and famous favelas in Rio - Rocinha to get a story - my favela story. 

The motorbike ride was unexpected. I knew that the favelas were on a hill but didn't think of how to get to the top. Our guide once again was Carlos. 'You're ok with bikes aren't you?' He joked as we straddled the bikes ready to ride pillion. 

Up and up we go with each passing bend I wonder how John is doing. Is he managing to hold on? My driver was far too fearless for my liking, taking 45 degree bends at 25 mph+ and overtaking a bus and another motorbike into oncoming traffic and when Carlos' driver overtook us he saw that as a challenge to go even faster. 'OMG! OMG!' I screamed. Slow down. He couldn't hear me - we were wearing helmets - thank god. I pressed myself into his back and held onto the bars with my vicelike grip. We made it to the top in minutes and John and Carlos followed. My thoughts turned to how we were to get down from the favela and I think the trip down - in parts were more dangerous than the trip up but with nothing to hold on to! 

Only my experiences in Cambodia could have prepared me for the shocks and horrors as well as the successes that lay waiting to greet me. 

The favelas are where approximately 180, 000 people in Rio live. How these people are educated, policed, fed, transported, cleaned, employed and generally looked after etc. is up to them. A remarkable group of independent people. 

It was Sunday. It was hot. A cocktail of raw sewage, cockroaches, dog faeces, rain water and hopeless dreams flowed through the broken streets as the drugs shot up the veins and the alcohol down the throats. Despite living in Cambodia I never saw or smelt anything like it- a realisation that corruption existed and none other than the people living in the favelas, really cared about the people living in the favelas. No one government can allow this to happen if they did. Michael Jackson had filmed his music video 'They Don't Really Care About Us' on the streets of Rocinha Favela - cue MJ http://youtu.be/QNJL6nfu__Q 

Carlos, 51, knew many people. He had taught himself to read and speak 5 different languages and he was rightly proud of his background and his foreground. He was now working with a reputable tour company and he wanted to share his stories and that of his brethren. He had had TB twice and he explained that whilst there was inadequate preventative health programmes (at any one time up to 40% of people living in favelas had TB). Medication was strictly given to TB sufferers to ensure it didn't spread and people were cured. I asked about a vaccination programme and he said there wasn't one. 

Step after step through the cracked pavements with houses built storey on top of storey ensured your journey through Rocinha was dangerous - disease, faeces or a hazard of some sort was going to get you at some point- forget the motorbike ride, walking through the favela with an inhabitant was far more treacherous. The photos, again, speak for themselves. It was very difficult to see hope, but it was there. People smiled, were polite and inviting and offered everything thehy had to you. How humbling.

I only undertook this journey once. What about the 3 year old who was told to say hello to us and who will live there for a lifetime? What chances does he have of escaping the daily pitfalls?! Rarely do people escape the favela and its traps as there is limited access to education - only sport. Guns, drugs, alcohol and violence are everyday norms - a place where books and some private space are rare. There is hope - there is hope, I kept seeing it. Sunshine, views across the bays and and abundance of food and jobs. With programmes on the horizon to ensure equality and many helping hands Rio is on the up. Carlos and others told us of many hopeful stories, but we saw for ourselves some very desperate ones too.  

Favela dwellers are reluctant to leave. They know the tears will flow if they are displaced and they have known nothing different. lets face it change is difficult and familiarity is safe. This was a place that if you could find safety you hung on to it with your vice-like grip. To stop the raw sewage running through the streets at the height of the summer and to start realising the dreams it is going to take courage, vision, faith and a trustworthy government who sees the needs of the poor as just as important as the rich. Just like postwar Brits. 

The streets of the favelas  really need the pope or similar people to speak out for them - the pope is possibly the poor's only advocate who can make a difference. We had met an amazing set of humble and hardworking people. Our eyes and ears were wide open and we were looking and listening. I am not convinced the rest of the world was, I had no idea a favela was like this. Not even in Cambodia where the people lived on the rivers in favelas was like this and if people did live like that it was a temporary solution. Once in a favela in Rio most stay for a lifetime.  We didn't listen carefully enough during the World Cup and I don't think they (the people who can make a difference/changers) or we will. But with the Olympics on the horizon and the first South American Pope we should, we must. 

If you have ever lived in a country which is fundamentally corrupt or understand the impact corruption has on a country you will understand how difficult it is to engineer change, particularly where life is cheap and killing a person means little except to the family. We must look, even if it is not attractive. I wouldn't expect anyone to like what I am saying or describing here because ultimately it is horrible. Here endeth the lessons.