Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Welcome to Cidade de Deus

The first time I saw City of God I found it shocking. It was hard to grasp the idea that such a place existed and that people were living such harsh realities. It also never crossed my mind as a place that I would ever visit, let alone want to. 

That is until Father Nicholas Wheeler, a friend of my father-in-law, invited Hub and I on a tour of Cidade de Deus where he works in the Anglican church and with the community. It took about an hour to get to there and as you enter the neighborhood, it appears like any run down neighborhood in Rio. It actually reminded me a lot of El Salvador. We loved the church which is open to the public and is decorated with colorful murals by American artist Joel Bergner. There is a particularly striking interpretation of the last supper - a black Jesus surrounded by women and men disciples with dark African features.

the garden of memory and hope
the last supper

Contrary to popular belief, Cidade de Deus (CDD) is not a favela but a government housing project. The Government of Guanabara State began a removal program in the 1960s to remove people living in favelas located on prime real estate to housing projects in the suburbs. They tried to persuade residents to relocate, but they were also forced. One of Rio's oldest favelas Praia do Pinto formerly located in rich neighborhoods Leblon and Ipanema, was set on fire. The city told residents to gather their belongings and they would try to put the blaze out, but that was never their intention.

mural depicting the fire of praia do pinto

If it was 2007 we would have seen teenage drug lords carrying guns, but since the pacification in 2008 the drug gangs have gone in hiding or relocated elsewhere. Father Wheeler witness the implementation of the UPP and describes the transition as an "occupation" more than anything else. There's real tension between the officers and the community and the UPP have a reputation for intimidating people rather than helping people. Father Wheeler told us that his church was broken into one day and one of the caregivers locked the thief in an office. She ran to the UPP office across the street from the church and they refused to help her because it didn't fall into their remit.

the UPP

As we started our tour, Father Wheeler pointed out the lack of services in CDD. Up until recently there was only one small hospital in town and it was meant to serve approximately 80-100,000 residents. The hospital is only slightly larger than the church, how is that possible? The "new" secondary hospital unit is actually a trailer and only for emergencies. Father Wheeler said that many of the "improvements" in CDD feel temporary and are only in place while all eyes are on Brazil. 


As we veered off the main road, the side streets were a mix of old homes and new homes and random businesses. Most of the original houses have been upgraded, but occasionally we would spot the original architecture of the 1960s, untouched and just like I remember in the film.


original home
still from the City of God

Father Wheeler suggested we have lunch at a government run cafeteria, an opportunity to interact with locals. I was told that I wouldn't be allowed to take photos inside, but would understand why. For R$1, the equivalent of 40 cents and 25 pence, residents could help themselves to a buffet of beans, rice, beef stew, polenta, salad, fruit, and juice. I imagined the room to be filled with homeless people and unpleasant, but it was packed with families and city workers on their lunch break. It felt poor, but surprisingly uplifting. There was camaraderie amongst people and the workers were friendly and welcoming.

restaurante cidadao or city restaurant

After lunch we decided to heads towards the poorer neighborhoods on the other side of the river. We started walking alongside a small canal towards the main river and it wreaked of sewage. There were homes down each side and I wondered if people were bothered by the smell or could they no longer notice it? And as I pondered this thought we stumbled upon a group of people kickin' back on the side of the canal, having a little party.  

The river itself was heartbreaking, completely filled with waste and rubbish. As we approached the bridge I was surprised to see a random horse grazing on the side. Father Wheeler suggested I not take photos once we crossed to the other side.

We made our way towards an area of temporary housing units built by the city while they create more modern housing projects nearby. The new projects look like apartment complexes, completely different to the rows of tiny single unit houses with corrugated roofs where residents currently live. We met two young girls living there and they were about 14-years old, one was covered in tattoos with scars and a chipped tooth and the other was playing with her 2-year old son. They said they were happy and settled where they were and didn't want to move into the new apartments, but they have no choice.

the new housing projects

We were stopped by a young group of kids ages 5-8 playing on the street. I took a quick pick of their toys and noticed that all the girls' barbies were pregnant. I was a bit puzzled because at that age my barbies weren't having sex and getting knocked up, my barbies were re-enacting Disney films. I wondered if these little girls fantasized about having babies? Is that healthy or did they look up to that 14-year old we'd just met?

Our tour came to an end at the road of hope, which lead into the poorest streets of Cidade de Deus. A place we could not go into, but I sheepishly tried to take a quick photo hence Hub's awkward expression. The situation in Cidade de Deus is sad and as Father Wheeler describes it, it is an example of the poverty of democracy. There is no one responsible or held accountable for this infamous place and no one to represent the community in government. It is a creation of the state and as such it is a community that is "done to" rather than "worked with."


As we made our way back we stopped for a quick pose at this beautiful mural. I had all kinds of thoughts running through my head when this was taken, reflecting on what I had just seen and feeling grateful for the life Hub and I get to live.

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