Today I went on a tour of the Rocinha favela. My caveat for anything I have to say here is that Rocinha is one of the most integrated of Rio’s favelas. It shares its border with Gavea, one of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods. Similarly, many of Rocinha’s inhabitants are working in Leblon, Ipanema, Copacabana, Leme and Botafogo. It is spatially more integrated and its people more integrated into the social fabric than those of other favelas. Add to this that we were not taken through the whole favela, most notably its poorer parts, I am the first to admit that I have a superficial impression of life inside the favela. My sense was of a showcase favela made presentable for tourists.
The illegibility of Rio de Janeiro continued inside the favela with what looks and feels like building design based on spontaneity and necessity rather than careful planning. One building on top of another with all notion of style left by the wayside. After the familiar density of buildings and people, the first thing I noticed was the favela economy. Nothing on these hills is legal. Nothing. So there’s no taxes, no minimum wage, no regularization, no such thing as a profit margin. It’s all outside of the law. Given these conditions, I expected to find a distorted economy, a huge gaping chasm between rich and poor, something like a gangster culture. But it didn’t seem to be that way. The price of life is regularized, if not equal. While goods and services are cheaper than down below, they generally reflect the legal prices without tax. There is apparently no black market, no need for manipulation of the economy. When I took photos I asked the guide if I should give the children money for their faces, “No, definitely not. It’s not necessary.” As far as I was lead to believe, there’s no artificiality to the favela economy.
Also surprising was that the people I saw were not really poor in the sense that they were deprived of their humanity. Not like slaves. The children were clean, their clothes laundered, their faces bright and friendly, their eyes shone, and the girls had immaculately done hair. The guide pointed out that their mothers have to carry water up endless stairs to take care of their children. Nevertheless, there was no shame or self-deprecation, nothing that would suggest life in the favela is abject. In the middle of the tour I needed to use the toilet, and this was perhaps the biggest surprise. There was no searching, not even a pause on the part of the guide. She turned around and asked the man occupying the nearest space, behind us, who gave her the key to a perfectly clean toilet. In fact, the toilet was much cleaner than those in the Centre Pompidou at the end of the day. The paper hung on a roll to my left, and the toilet flushed. The light didn’t work, but it didn’t matter because the door didn’t fit properly and enough light was let in to see. There was nothing slum-like about this experience. As I say, there’s a section of the favela where the tour did not go. Close to the mountain where there is no daylight, it is damp, there is no sewage and no electricity. The homes are more makeshift, vulnerable to the threat of the elements in their interaction with the sheer cliff that is the side of the mountain. The young woman from that side of the favela who accompanied our tour had difficulty breathing, bad lungs because of “the absence of daylight and the damp tropical climate.” I am sure life over on the other side of the mountain would be less appealing.
But this doesn’t mean that life is straightforward in the favela. Of course, it’s difficult for me to see inside this culture because I don’t speak the language. However, I do know that the government is always trying to move the inhabitants. The tensions between rich and poor—both inside and outside the favela—are real and invasive. The rich don’t like the poor, and so tension develops between the residents of Gavea and those of Rocinha. But it’s academic because who will clean their houses and look after the children if the residents of Rocinha are alienated or moved out altogether?
Inside the favela, they never know when or if they will have water—it’s like something out of Chinatown where the water is stopped at random. However, different from Polanski’s film, it seems that the turning on and off of the water is not for purposes of making money out of the poor, but to remind them who is in control. The children go to school to eat, not to learn, because the teachers are on strike for more pay. Sometimes for months at a time. However, it has to be said, this is a problem throughout Brazil. Poverty means the difficult of access to eduction, but not necessarily shame in the favela.
In the favela, they don’t pay taxes, but taxes buy running water, postal services, education, sewage, sanitation, electricity. Asked what she thinks the government should spend its money on in the favela, our tour guide who herself lives in the favela answers without pause: education and sanitation. “Would you pay for them if they were given”? I ask her, hearing bourgeois judgment in my question. “Absolutely” she comes back as quick as the suggestion to provide education and sanitation. But the government knows (or thinks it knows) that power is in the holding back of what its subjects most want and need. Instead of water and education, they build a jungle gym for the children and paint the facades of the houses next to the road every time someone important comes to visit the favela. Then people like me will go there and say “it’s not so bad in the favela, what are they all complaining about?”