A day in the life of a Rio favela. Jamaica, are you watching?

The idea of tourists taking a guided tour of a Rio favela struck me as tacky. The idea of my being one of them seemed far fetched. So, what was I doing being driven in a van up a hill for a tour of a favela? I was being a team player during World Cup 2014. Out local guide quickly changed my attitude.

Carlos, our guide

Carlos was so humble, and unassuming; he was not blasé, and he was not pompous or annoyed about what he was showing.

Call a favela a slum for simplicity sake. As in any country, where masses of poor people live, certain characteristics appear. So Favela Santa Marta was little different at first sight.

It was Sunday afternoon, and most people were just cooling out. Lots of little children were playing–football in an area covered with artificial turf, running around playing tag, using the tourists as shields as we walked along.

Atop the favela

Adults were in small groups on roof tops bars, one group getting ready for a birthday party for the lady bartender. Other groups were listening to funky music and grilling meat. Some just cooled out in bars along the narrow passageways.

The first contrast with Jamaica that struck me was that no one came with a begging hand. Now, it could be that the community, which is organized in many clear ways, has come to shun that behaviour, but it’s a habit that’s generally less evident in Rio than in Kingston.

We walked around and marveled at the views of Rio from the high and steep hillside dwelling.

Amazing view from the hillside

It did not take much imagination to think that one pressure to change the area would be its desirable location. Gentrification may not be far away. It may be closer since recent efforts by the government to make favelas more like normal areas: improving water supplies; introducing ‘police pacifying units’, and using government organizations to run more things and push away control from drug and criminal gangs; forcing people to pay for their use of electricity and cable TV. I had to look at my wife and smile at the thought of JPS’s recent tussles to deal with electricity theft in Kingston. The good and bad of both sides were easy to see. The favela was wrapped in electrical cables, much of it looking jerry-rigged, but with some standard fittings for street lights. We saw the new digital metering boxes. We heard about cases of overcharging of customers. Some wondered about fire risks.

My mind is never far from risk:reward issues. I looked at the piles of garbage caught in narrow areas where water pushed things but could carry them no further. Kingston’s gullies are wide and we avoid such piling up in many areas because of that.

Garbage collection, and many social services face peculiar problems in a Rio favela, perched on a steep hillside, where the way in and out means steep movement up and down. You cannot do much except deliver in bulk at the bottom and get things redistributed upwards. Likewise, getting material down must be in small amounts. I looked at the newish fernicular railway that made the climb and descent much easier for people. It was easy to see how that one provision could and had transformed daily life.

Michael Jackson had visited this favela and made his video song ‘They don’t really care about us’. Though, I knew the song, I had never seen the video. We were given a viewing in a little store that sold MJ memorabilia.

My first reaction was “Those are Rasta colours,” as I saw the typically tight choreography. My second reaction was several thoughts, including wondering which politicians had seen allowing this as part of a strategy to help push change. I know that The Pope and President Obama have been well-publicized favela visitors. They’re now chic. Rudi Guiliani had sent materials from NYC to help develop this favela. Things were moving in a good direction, it seemed.

Our tour organizer had stressed at the outset that the favela would be safe. As we stood perched at the top, where we started, and looked from a pavilion down, we heard a loud crack and saw smoke. “It’s only fireworks, folks, don’t worry,” he said quickly. No one had ducked or screamed, but I wondered if he’d gotten an OMG moment. He seemed well at ease in the community, joking with kids and our guide. He told me that he was not from a favela, but had befriended people from there when he’d arrived in Rio, feeling more affinity with them than with the crowd he met in Copacabana.

We are not going to be major agents of change with our favela visits lasting 90 minutes, and pressing some cash into a few hands. I live seeing kids playing, and naive as it may seem, that’s usually one thing I try to use as a gauge of how life goes. Kids are not good at faking it. The little girl who carried a plate covered in foil to a table by a bar was deadly serious. That salad was for the party, not me. The boys who crashed into my legs, running from each other had not seen me as anything other than another object. I saw boys flying kites from high roofs. I did not have some idyllic notion that they would be with parents on comfy sofas watching Brazil play Germany on Tuesday. I visualized a mass, gathered around a TV or in a square crying out “Brasil! Brasil!” I visualized them all crying when the final whistle was blown, whatever the result. Tears taste the same, whether of joy or pain.

Our tour organizer said later that Brazil will beat Germany, but feared that they would meet Argentina in the final. Why? Brazil may lose, to their arch rivals. Argentina supporters had already been strutting after their quarter final win. No. Lose, yes, but not to Argentina. He did not want that blight on his children’s lives. I was stunned that this young man focussed on the generations to come. But, he was a football apassionado, if I can use that word. He was a fan of Flamenco, the red and black colours ruled his vision and thoughts once he saw them. It is a simple thing in many football-crazy countries. Everything comes back to that. Much of life’s significance and personal pride gets reduced to that.

Brazil is on a high. World Cup now. Olympic Games in 2016. The world loves Brazil and she can return it in bucket loads. Favela life may get more than a sweet smell and wash over from that. Maybe, some jobs. Maybe, some wider interest. Maybe, some cleaning up and more consistent flows of public interest and money.

I asked about land ownership, drugs, alcoholism, sex trading. I did not hear much that surprised or shocked me. Alcohol is a bigger problem than drugs: people had seen the effects of the latter and were afraid of it. Land titles were not easy to create, but evidence of ownership was available. Of course, sex sells and is bought. Duh! I should have asked about whether the favelas are becoming the hip place to visit for ordinary Brazilians. I suspect not yet. The alleyways don’t lend themselves to casual visiting. More likely, favela action creeps down the hill into streets, bars, clubs and bedrooms. Everyone loves Samba.

Jamaica can take many lessons from the process of repositioning favelas. Slums have stigmas, but they contain lives as valuable as any. They often have great creativity. Living on little does wonders for ingenuity. Getting out and ‘moving ahead’ may be in some minds, but getting by is more likely. Few people really like to suffer all the time. Those who say people should get out of the favelas are good examples of those who see instant fixes in life. You can get poor in a hurry, but getting out from under the rock of poverty isn’t usually easy or fast.

Jamaican garrison politics depends much on being able to control through attrition, so pressure to maintain ghettos is strong. Our criminal elements have not yet been displaced by administrative structures, not least because they cannot deliver services as well the Dons can. So, we can look to Brazil, but our journey won’t be the same. But, baby steps may be starting to happen.

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)

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