to Brazil with CAFOD, Peter Stanford visits the shanty towns (below) and meets an engaging campaigner for justice (left)
EVERY Brazilian city has its shanty towns or favelas. Nothing emphasises quite so clearly the division between first world and third world Brazil than these labyrinths of tightly packed cardboard and plywood shacks, more often than not with open sewers running between them, in all of the country's urban areas. Usually the favelas stretch for miles on the outskirts of cities like Rio, out of sight, out of mind of the wealthy who enjoy the splendours of the city's golden beaches, its restaurants and shops. But they are there too in the centres. In San Paulo the poor cower in hastily constructed huts under flyovers that carry commuters to the city centre with its tower blocks and skyline reminiscent of an elongated Manhatten Island. In Belem at the mouth of the Amazon, the favelas are built on stilts above mosquito-infested marshes.
This stark contrast between rich and poor Brazil was never more evident than when I visited Tony Terry, an Irish Kiltegan Father and a partner of CAFOD, at his parish in Peixinhos. This parish of 120,000 sits roughly halfway between the twin towns of Olinda and Recife, best known to people in this country as the diocese of Dom Helder Camara before he retired in 1985. Recife is a thriving port and industrial city with miles of beaches stretching to north and south. Olinda is a breathtakingly beautiful hilltop town of colonial-style churches and narrow streets looking out over the Atlantic, and designated as a site of particular cultural and historical interest by UNESCO. Its name in Portuguese means tellingly "how beautiful", reputedly the words of the first settlers when they founded the town.
Peixinhos (literally, the little
fishes) consists of working class homes and favelas. Most of the roads are unmade and impassable when it rains (it struck me as a curel irony that in Britain we consider it desirable if a house is situated on an "exclusive" unmade road, why in Brazil dirt tracks were a symbol of lack of development). Some attempts have been made by the municipal authorities, prompted and cajouled by the people and their community associations, to put in sewers, clean water and electricity. But in several of the areas of this vast flat parish, the stench makes it plain that there is still much progress to be made.
Walking with Fr Tony through the narrow alleyways that divide the houses, it is the children who catch your eye. Today's young Brazilians are an extraordinary mixture of the descendants of European immigrants, African slaves, and native Indians. Dark faces are topped with blond hair, and set off by clear blue eyes.
At one community centre in the Santo Amaro district, the children were gathering for what might technically be called "non-formal education". They were in the process of making simple brushes under the guidance of two adult supervisors. But the arrival of a guest prompted them to put on a puppet show. One little boy of no more than five or six
disappeared behind a sheet and projected an extraordinary variety of voices while his pals, boys and girls alike, moved the hand-made puppet figures around.
Cristina, one of the two adults working with the children, explained that they were attempting to teach the children about their own Brazilian culture — and in particular that of the north-east region — which they felt was in danger of being submerged by the all-pervasive influence of America, glimpsed on the television sets of a few privileged residents of the favela. The staple diet of the TV channels is Dallas, and Xu Xa, Pele's ex-girlfriend and a Brazilian version in looks and style of Kylie Minogue. All the children in the Santo Amaro centre knew the words to Xu Xa's theme tune.
These community "schools" for children who would otherwise be left to walk the streets every day (and like as not fall into either petty crime or drug abuse or pushing) are a good example of the many and varied attempts of the community, with the encouragement and support of the church and CAFOD, to answer themselves the needs of their area. One boy of about 12 told me how he had been addicted to glue sniffing until he had come into contact with these community "schools". Now he was joining in happily with other youngsters in making brushes and bracelets.
The adults who devote their energies to working with these children do so for no financial reward at the moment (although the local council was being lobbied to accept responsibility for paying at least a part of their salary ).
Marcos, a young man in his twenties, explained with great
eloquence why he was involved in work with street children. They were, he said, an exploited group in an exploited country. It was no accident they were on the streets, brutalised by what they saw around them and their situation. What those working with the children were aiming to do was to reach out to them through affection and care, and then help them develop at least some of their potential, if only to equip them to survive.
It was a three stage process, Marcos outlined. First you had
to get to know the children, then develop a relationship of respect with them and among them, and then instill in them a sense of pride in themselves and their culture. "Children in the favelas have a low sense of their own value. The only values they know are through stealing, escaping with glue sniffing, drugs. We want to give these zhildren back their self-respect.
They have been treated like rubbish, like animals."
The unavoidable conclusion one comes to walking around a favela is that in the eyes of the Brazilian authorities and the wealthy establishment, it is not only the children who are regarded as little better than animals. Federal and state funds are given to projects in the favelas —such as the building of sewers, paying of school teachers etc — only when the community can raise such a clamour that it would be too embarrassing for those in power to ignore it, or else when it is election time and their votes are needed. In one Sao Paulo favela the main street was tarmacked — one of the candidates in a municipal election had carried out the work and promised favela residents that if they voted for him, the rest of the alleyways would be covered likewise. He won the poll — and promptly forgot his promise.
In such a situation, the people can rely only on their own resources, their ability to organise and be strong as a community. And in that process, the Catholic church has clearly played a major enabling role.
Tony Terry's work in Peixinhos is not confined to ministering the sacraments. He is more often to be found putting his shoulder, metaphorically, behind the community in its efforts to organise, supporting them, but always letting the initiatives come from the people.
He pointed out one community centre that had been built for the people by a wellmeaning organisation. Because the local people had had no role in its planning, in its construction, in its financing, they had shown little enthusiasm for using it. Left empty, the centre had been vandalised. It was only then, when Fr Tony appealed to the community to repair the centre, that they felt they had a role, a part to play la its future. Now it is spotlessly clean and used throughtout the day for various community projects.
In a parish of 120,000 people, one priest cannot give each community the attention they need even if only in terms of mass on a Sunday. and so local lay community leaders have emerged. They bring the people together to read the gospel on a Sunday. This is for them not an abstract act, but rather it becomes their reason for acting, their inspiration for coming together as a community and as Christians to fight the injustice that is their daily bread.
And these community associations and their lay leaders, as well as showing the people that hand-in-hand with the church they can be strong enough to demand change in a local context, have also, in the recent presidential election, pointed the way forward on a broader scale. It was the strength of the local community and grass-roots associations that was the strength of Lula (Lutz Inacio da Silva) in the recent presidential contest. He was the candidate of a people waking up from years of oppression to a realisation that together they could fight for a juster and a more fair system. He, a former steel worker, came within three million votes of winning.
And whatever the result of the recent poll, the people and Lula's party which fights for their interests can only get stronger. I felt when talking with the community associations and their leaders that a movement had been started that was unstoppable. As one leader put it, working together at grass-roots level is not a product of any electoral campaign, but is the very essence of the popular movement.
Next week: in the countryside