08 January 2009

In Country: About Belo Horizonte

Belo, with a population of about 2.4 million people, is the third largest city in Brasil. If you count the population of the surrounding region, that number swells to 5.5 million. Since 1897 it has been the capital city of Minas Gerais (pronounced Men-us Cher-ice), and was Brasil's original planned city in the early years of the First Republic. Like Campinas, Belo is not a city that's very attractive to tourists. From walking the streets the past two days, I have found it to be a very gritty city. Drivers are aggressive and the sidewalks are treacherous. The people, however, are delightful and so it's definitely worth going off the beaten path to meet them.

Belo sits in a valley ringed by mountains. In fact, the city's name refers to the view: belo means "beautiful" and horizonte means "horizon." There are lots of hills throughout the city, and once in a while one gets a good view of the sprawling vastness of this place. We are here in the height of summer right now, so the temperature gets into the mid 90s each day. There was a bit of a respite from that heat yesterday, however, when from out of nowhere the sky began to pour buckets of rain on us. Jocelyn, David, Hope and I were walking around downtown when it happened and so we ditched under the cover of a shoe store awning and waited for it to pass.

Despite the excitement of travel and the friendliness of the people, there is a sad side to most Brasilian cities. That sadness can be found in the favelas. These are the slums which are located in every large city in the country. Favelas are vast, unregulated communities built on hillsides, in marshes or other inaccessable sites. There are no roads except dirt and gravel, and no electricity except linha gato, the "cat lines" tapped from legal structures adjacent to the favelas. Typically there is no running water, forcing the women to walk long distances to pump water from public faucets. The return walk includes carrying the containers on their heads. Children do not attend school and the police do not patrol the paths. Often children run away from their family's dwelling due to abuse or neglect. In other instances the parents abandon their children because the kids are considered too burdensome in their need for food and clothing. Food is hard to come by among the Brasilian poor, and many people scavange for grains of rice or discarded bread crumbs in the garbages each day. Malnutrition and disease are high. Although drug abuse and drug lords run rampant, the two biggest scourges to the people in the favelas are alcoholism and teenage pregnancy.

Because they are illegal communities, it's challenging to identify the number of favelas throughout Brasil, as well as to know the number of favelados, the term used to describe those who dwell in them. Many sources claim about 30% of a city's population lives in a favela. For Belo that would be about 1.5 million people living in one of the 100 slums in the city.

Over the past couple of days we have traveled to two such favelas. Today we went to visit a mission outpost affiliated with Youth with a Mission (YWAM). This YWAM facility is located directly in the heart of Novo San Lucas, which is a vast collection of 6 favelas on the hillside south of downtown Belo. Novo San Lucas is only about 20 years old, and continues to expand as more and more poor people find themselves unable to afford even the most basic housing in the city center. There is some evidence that the Brasilian government is attempting to deal with the issue, however, as some of the shacks are being torn down and replaced with government housing. In this photo, the orange structure in the center of the frame is a newly constructed government apartment building.

Because going into the favelas can be dangerous, it is necessary to have an escort. In both cases (yesterday and today) our escort was Anderson, a young man I will introduce in another blog entry. When walking in the favelas there are certain rules we have to follow. We cannot take photos of the people. This is out of respect for their dignity and out of safety for us. Young men in the favelas can be very dangerous and would kill for a camera without thinking twice about it. They have nothing to lose. We also cannot talk loudly and preferably not in English. This is to reduce the attention on ourselves. However since the favelas are communities where everyone knows everyone, word travels fast when estranhos (strangers) appear on the scene.

Yesterday we visited Anderson's mother and father in a different favela. In this case I was able to take a couple of photos of the street and alley where his family lives. The running water in the photo was open sewage. Anderson's family (mother, father, three sisters and a 2 year old nephew) all live in a two room dwelling off a side alley. Out of respect for them I did not take photos, but it was small and grim.

Because there is no garbage service, the people tend to just throw their trash in heaps over the side of the alley. Therefore rats often infest such dwellings. A young girl once told the YWAM worker that she was afraid of going to sleep at night because the rats would chew on the toes of her newborn son.

Next door to Anderson's family's home lives a woman who served as a grandmother to Anderson when he was a child. Her name is Dona Laura and she invited us in to sit and talk. We also met her granddaughter Laura Stephane, who is 15 years old. Without access to English education or a good paying job, Laura Stephane is doomed to repeat the cycle of the favelado. That she does not yet have a baby is probably attributable to her grandmother's care. Most girls who stay in the favela start having babies at 14 or 15. This photo shows David and I with Dona Laura. I vowed to get her address and start correspondence with Laura Stephane. Perhaps that way we can break the cycle in one girl's life by offering her a vision of another way to live. Before we left, Anderson took a photo of us outside Dona Laura's house. From left to right: Maureen, Dona Laura, Laura Stephane, Rebekkah, Jocelyn, David and Hope. I don't know the dog's name but the YWAM worker today said there are more dogs than humans in the favelas.


Rondinella said...

That is my city. But I don' t like that: the people are so cold and selfish.

Jenna said...

This must have been an interesting experience. So many aspects of life in Brazil are hard to hear about, but it is great to know that organizations are helping. I have supported Task Brasil, which helps teenage mothers and street children in Rio.