Wednesday, June 09, 2004

The Slum Communities

Our interviews continue – the main part of our work here is going into poor communities, mostly ones with donated computers, and seeing how these have been employed. There is a well- known Brazilian project that has been working on “fostering citizenship” through technical empowerment, and we’re mainly affiliated with them at this point.

Why all of this is important is that we’ve been traveling into slum areas in Brazil, and over the next two weeks, will be doing a very extensive survey project in these areas to assess the impact of the projects.

This experience has brought us to face a very difficult fact about research – understanding the group you study. None of us feel we can ever understand what living, with a sense of permanence, in a slum is like, and no matter how often we make casual visits to slum projects as honored guests, this understanding will not get more than fractionally better. I do not have a friend, brother or at least a business interest in the favelas – I can never really feel that my own sense of well being is constantly affected by the ups and downs of living in the slum communities. I can walk away from this situation anytime and have it be a memory, and an outlet for having written a few emails. Perhaps I will be congratulated for this work.

But that being said, every person we speak to gives us new insight into life in the favelas. Every day we find out new things – break old half-conceptions and refresh. Every few days, we come across at least one exceptional, spirited person, whose acquaintance tells us that we, as objective dispassioned researchers, are not here to help and uplift, but to learn from people who are doing outstanding things. So I can write this without guilt – for these are only an outsider’s gentle brush with life in the slums of Rio de Janeiro.

Before arriving in Brazil, I had been warned about the favelas. I had been told that these were guarded by machine guns, and unauthorized people have absolutely no access into them. The favelas, mostly located on little hills in the city (of Rio, though hill favelas are also common in Belo Horizonte and Sao Paulo) and these have rather obvious informal boundaries, and one apparently would never enter there except for a very good reason – my friends from Brazil had never entered any in all their lives. (the term favela, by the way, is not totally PC – and most people who live in the favelas tend to call them morros (mountains) or communities)

Coming from Bombay, this was somewhat unusual to me – we walk in and out of slums all the time, partly because many “cottage industries” are located in slums. So WRT Bombay, if you need to get leather, you invariably go to Dharavi, for work on textiles, it is common to go into Sewri, and so on. Of course, one could say we travel only into those parts of the slums that are fairly well known to us and therefore do not know the entire depth of the slums (or can claim to understand life inside one), but with the exception of a couple of places – I can’t think of whole localities of the city that would be out of bounds, or where a local resident would stop me from entering.

A lot what I heard about favelas seemed additionally bizarre – I was told never to walk on the streets at night, near favelas, not to take pictures, to wear inexpensive-looking shoes and so on – most important, I was told not to try and get any research work in the favelas done myself. It was effectively a picture of anarchy.

So I did take a lot of this with some salt – after all, this is a very unequal society (I have an unconfirmed statistic that the top 1% of Brazil is worth more than the bottom 50% -- the more certain statistic is that in global inequality rankings it is almost constantly in the top 5 nations and has a high GINI index of about 60). In such divided societies, misconceptions about poor neighborhoods seemed likely. I would soon find that while a lot of this is misunderstood, some of the issues turned out to be fairly real (Ramble: Having said that, nobody deliberately misleads anyone on favela and safety issues – there is indeed a high armed crime problem in some of the Brazilian metros, and most people warning you are almost certainly concerned about your well being – if you’re used to walking home a few miles from bars to beat down the drunkenness).

First up, yes – you ARE watched if you enter a favela and are not a local resident, and it is practically impossible to do any research in a favela without the approval of the community, which is itself a rather fluid entity. This may mean something as simple as having an individual from the community be with you when you are in and out, or as complicated as needing approval from specific individuals, who may be centers of influence in the community.

In our case, the four projects in favelas that we’ve been at so far, we would never have found, and even if found, we would never have done an ounce of useful work at any of them without being escorted by people from the organization we were with. When we entered one of the favelas, children crowded around and were shouting “taxi taxi” at us – apparently taxis rarely, if ever, go into that favela (almost never at night), and there is no public bus going in there. The only transport (although remote, this favela was actually within the city limits of RJ) were small privately run vans which squeeze people in and go from point to point – somewhat like shared rickshaw systems in Bombay.

Now there are favelas in the heart of Rio, and favelas outside of Rio (33% of Rio lives in favelas, another unconfirmed statistic) – unlike in India, where you move gradually from a rich neighborhood to upper middle class and middle class pockets, and slowly as you move farther and farther away, to the lower middle class neighborhoods – but with slums scattered in each category, here in Brazil it is somewhat different.

There seem the rich areas, the upper middle class areas, the middle class areas, and then the dramatically poor areas. There seems (to me) to be no concept of a lower-middle (working) class neighborhood, and there is a jump down straight to the favelas from the middle class localities. Also, these favelas go on for miles and miles. We traveled for a good 20 minutes just driving at a constant speed of 60kmph through favelas and more favelas, often divided by gang colors. (An aside, the gang graffiti is much like California, and there are two major gangs in Rio – the TCP and the CV gangs. One of the neighborhoods we were in had recently been acquired by TCP, all the CV graffiti had been crossed out along the streets – practically one block away, we were in a staunch CV zone. It turns out these territorial battles are particularly bloody, and are fought with very sophisticated weapons)

So our team was doing an interview in a favela in Northern Rio. Often, during interviews, I sit around with a comical expression on my face as everyone speaks a language I don’t understand. So I wandered out of the building and out into the street. Our taxi driver who we had hired for the day, was waiting outside, I greeted him and went off for a walk. I had hardly found an appropriate graffiti wall for photography, when the driver came running after me, made some dramatic signs towards me, and practically pulled me away. As we walked back towards the building, I understood he was telling me not to walk away from him while we were in the locality. I was aware of this requirement, but I had taken it with a pinch of salt, writing it off as upper-class paranoia with slums.

Nonetheless, I got some great pictures of gang signs, so my talent in pushing the limits would be certain to rise from the ashes again. Midway through our very next interviews, we heard fireworks. This was repeated several times in during the conversation. At first, I was not sure what they were for, but guessed it may have been because of the Brazil-Argentina match the night before, which Brazil won painlessly. I was later informed this was not the case – the fireworks were signals by the gangs for one of the two – either there was police around, or a rival gang had attacked.

Of course, now I wanted a picture of the police helicopters, and while leaving the second school I decided to try another stunt. I got a picture of the helicopter, but as soon (milliseconds) as I had turned my camera towards the neighborhood which set off the firecrackers, I was loudly alerted to put my camera away, actually, I think it was an order, and I obeyed it without question.

Since that day, I have found that what I heard was absolutely correct. It is NEVER okay to take a photograph in a favela unless you know exactly what you are doing. The drug trafficking business here is very serious, and since the favelas are usually on hills (ironically, the best views of Rio are thus from the poorest neighborhoods) taking any pictures of uphill areas one never knows what buildings are on them, and who, wishing not to be photographed, is living in them. For those concerned about my well being – I now humbly respond to this “rule” with unquestioning deference. (Ramble: Travel within favelas is often on little motorbikes which ply in and out of the areas from the fringes, sometimes there are no paved roads, and almost always the entire localities of houses are made of brown brick – thus the unusual sight of brown patches amid the fancy hills of RJ). Another reason for the ban on pictures may be the fear of information on the 'enemy terrain' to leak, such as the identification of strategic points, or of surveillance people. Many of the favela "invasions" (related to drug terrain wars) happen on flash raids by rival gangs that need to get in and out quickly.

We were told that the police presence increases in violence in the favelas, rather than control it – this seems to be a general opinion across the board. The police here have a "take few hostages" system when it comes to dealing with the gangs within favelas (funnily, i think it is the police complicity with organized crime in bombay that makes the city safe. Here, gangs frequently fight for supremacy, but these fights are usually restricted to the gangs themselves. In one case, At Raina da Paz, we were told by the coordinator in one of the internet centers in the favela that the gangs kept her intimated of the exact dates between which they would be at war, and that on those days, people should stay out of certain areas and so on.

Our business contact from Sao Paulo, who is also working on a similar project says that an average of 80 people are “executed” weekly as a result of the drug trade in the localities that he alone is in charge of (this says nothing about scale, but I think the guy was in charge of a large tract of East Sao Paulo).

But all this being said, I have no claim that any of this represents life deep inside a favela. Most of the places we have visited are at the edges of the favelas, and we only look longingly like lecherous researchers at the upper inclines of the favelas, which have been etched as a strange labyrinth in our minds. The deeper one goes into the favelas, the less the commercial entities (and therefore less reason for someone not living there to be in there).

And while all agree that the drug trade in the favelas is absolutely massive, as is the violence between gangs involved in traffic, we’ve also been *reminded* time and again, that people live there, ordinary people who live and work in the same spaces as we do. Several taxi drivers (invaluable research resource) have told us that live in Rio is made out to be much more dangerous than it actually is – they feel reasonably comfortable driving around favelas in the daytime, though not at night. People we’ve met and interviewed in the favelas have told us of no personal history whatsoever with violent incidents, nor any real fear of them in daily life, and that the violence is completely restricted to people in the drug trade. When we are in the favelas, we notice that there are hardly any high walls or grills to protect (even the more affluent looking homes). The differences are pointed out often enough, but it is also good to know that the same television serials are popular, the same beer (Brahma and Skol) sells in massive quantities, and kids are as likely to be spending their time gainfully on Instant Messaging at a favela telecenter as they are at Ipanema.

In closing, one poignant difference did strike us hard. One of the interview locations we were at yesterday was a school in a favela – this school had a small facility for orphans and abandoned children, who were up for adoption. I had an interesting meeting with a kid there – when we were busy peeking into the childrens’ resting area. He was a two-year old was awakened for some reason. He got up and went to the matron, and told her something was missing, to which she told him to go and check near his slippers which were in some other room. The kid, with no further ado, had wiped his eyes to being fully awake and walked off into the hallway, unescorted, to find his slippers. He did not say a word to anyone else.

Small incident, but in that brief encounter, the extent of independence I saw in the kid was quite remarkable. At that age, I would probably have cried in bed, lying in a pool of my own urine, waiting for my mother to come and deal with my problem whatever it was. This was almost a tragic underscore to what may well be a first phase in the lost childhood of this boy.


At 2:26 AM, Blogger jon said...

I am looking everywhere for soccer shoes and soccer shoes, while doing so I somehow stumbled onto your soccer shoes blog. I am happy to say I learned something and will look into this further...

Thanks for the great posts...


At 9:34 AM, Blogger Antonio Carlos said...

Nice work you have done here in Rio. Your posts at the blog are also very interesting. I am a brazilian from Rio and have worked in the past with Peace Corps volunteers in Rio's slums. Some of the researches had some Berkeley students, but it was all a long time ago (1965-1968). Now that I am getting in touch with my american friends again I found it great to send them the link to your blog. Most are from Masssachusetts (Newton and Wesleley). I'd like to exchange some emails with you too. I work with computers and besides the experience with slums I live right close to a big one during almost 40 years. My email is Best regards, Antonio Carlos.

At 11:44 AM, Blogger Antonio Carlos said...

I've also noticed that you are an urban planner so I believe you could have read Anthony Leeds books and writings about urban anthropology. I worked with professor Leeds for a year or two and I must tell you that he had a brilliant mind indeed. Sorry to know he is dead. Best regards

At 4:57 PM, Anonymous Lanie said...

I was just reading news on here and came across your blog about the slums in Rio. I did learn something today. Thanks for your column!

At 8:33 AM, Blogger jimmy said...

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