Archive for the ‘The Social Question’ Category

Without a Roof/Sem-Teto

February 3, 2010

For the past two days I have been reading through student journals commenting on a panel session that they attended on homelessness.  Three presenters spoke directly and eloquently to these Vanderbilt students about life on the streets of Nashville, how they came to live there, and how they survive and strive to get off—and stay off—the streets.  The students were deeply moved and impressed with the testimonials of these three people, and forced to confront their own views of the homeless, and how to deal with homelessness.

Although these reflections dealt with homelessness in Nashville, Tennessee, they pushed me to think about the homeless here in Rio de Janeiro (known in Portuguese as “those without a roof”—sem-teto).  In a city like Nashville, with some 600,000 inhabitants, the number of homeless is generally estimated at somewhere around 1,800.  In Rio de Janeiro, a metropolis of 10 million, probably a third of the inhabitants live in slums (favelas), that is, several million people.  The roughly one thousand favelas in Rio range from those constructed over decades that have gradually been “urbanized” to include some paved streets, access to water, electricity and other services, to those of more recent origin.  The latter are closest to the shanty towns and tent cities we see in the U.S.  Built more recently with scrap construction materials, cardboard, and tarps, these favelas are home to hundreds of thousands of the truly abject poor—those living on less than $2 a day income.

A small section of the Rocinha favela

No one really knows how many Brazilians live on the streets.  In Rio, it must be in the thousands, if not tens of thousands.  There is very little here in the way of the infrastructure that has emerged in the U.S. in the last thirty years—soup kitchens, Room in the Inn programs, and extensive municipal services aimed specifically at the homeless.  Historically, so much of services and assistance in Latin America have been provided by the government or the Catholic Church.  Civil society—the numerous private, voluntary organizations so common in the United States—has historically been weak in Brazil.

One striking feature of homelessness in Brazil is the number of children and adolescents living on the streets.  An anthropologist, Tobias Hecht, has written a poignant and eye opening ethnographic account of these children in the cities of Recife and Olinda in his At Home on the Street:  Street Children in Northeast Brazil (Cambridge University Press, 1998).  These children, like many adults, move back and forth between life on the street, and at times, the homes of their families or friends.

My students’ reflections on their personal experiences in interacting with the homeless in the U.S. forced me to reflect on my own direct experience here in Rio.  In particular, they made me think about one homeless man (I will call him Pedro) I have been seeing on my street for the past five months.  In those months, I have seen him sleeping in the doorways in different spots in an area of about four blocks along the Rua Visconde de Pirajá, the very busy commercial avenue where I live that runs the length of Ipanema.  His pattern seems to be to sleep and rest during the days at different spots along the street, and then stay up most of the night.  Most days, he has a small suitcase or bag of belongings.  He also seems to get food from different restaurants up and down the street.  In the evenings, he is usually in my block, most nights sitting near the entrance to the local supermarket, Zona Sul.  He usually has a small box of candies and nuts that he sells.  Starting back in late September, when I first noticed him, I began a daily ritual of stopping by the Zona Sul each evening to buy soft drinks for the next day.  As I leave the store, I stop and buy a small bag of peanuts from Pedro for one real (about fifty cents).  It does not appear he gets many takers.

Zona Sul supermarket on my street

Zona Sul supermarket on my street

After a while, he began to recognize me, and I got up the courage to try to talk with him.  Although I am highly fluent in Brazilian Portuguese, I can barely understand him.  Partly it is his speech patterns, but I think it is also partly because he has mental problems.  I was going to say that he is an “older man”, but he is probably only in his forties and just looks much older due to his hard life.  By Brazilian standards, he is black (that is, he is very dark skinned).  For about the past two weeks, he has been sleeping right in front of my apartment building so I see him in the morning as I come and go.  He recognizes me, but always seem a little confused when we greet each other and I try to speak with him.

Pedro’s plight personalizes homelessness and poverty in Brazil in ways that books and even having poverty around me everywhere in Rio cannot.  Pedro forces me to think hard about what to do about poverty in a very specific and concrete way.  He brings home the stark contrast between his life living on the street and my life in the comfortable apartment building looming above him.  (See my earlier blog entry, A Lucky Man.)   Even though some of us on this street may see him daily and provide Pedro with small amounts of money, food, or other help, that does not get him off the street.  In the U.S., I might be able to help him get into a shelter, at least at night.  Here, the number of people like Pedro on the streets makes that very unlikely.  The scale of the challenge here is so much larger than a place like Nashville or even New York City.  I am also not sure what Pedro wants.  I will keep trying to talk with him, and hope that we can begin to understand each other so that I can find out more about him.  Just maybe, he will help me understand the situation of those like him here in Rio and, just maybe, I can do something to help him.

The sidewalk in front of my apartment building.


Seismic Waves from Haiti to Brazil

January 23, 2010

The earthquake in Haiti on January 12 also sent shock waves through Brazil.  The United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH)—operating since 2004—is commanded by a Brazilian general, and more than 1,200 Brazilians form the single largest contingent in the force.  The second ranking official in the UN mission in Port-au-Prince was a Brazilian diplomat, Luís Carlos da Costa (60), with four decades of service including some danger zones (Liberia and Kosovo).  He died, buried in the ruins of the mission headquarters.  Most poignantly, Zilda Arns, a physician and the founder of a non-profit to protect children, Pastoral da Criança (Pastoral Care for Children), had just finished speaking in a church in downtown Port-au-Prince when the massive seismic waves rippled through the city, and brought down the cathedral on Dr. Arns and the priests and parishioners around her.

Video shot by Brazilian soldier outside the Sacré Coeur de Tugeau Church moments after the earthquake.

Seventeen Brazilian members of the peacekeeping force died in the ruins in Haiti, most in the MINUSTAH headquarters.  The Brazilian government has pledged to send more troops to Haiti and some $200 million in aid and assistance.  The peacekeeping force should rise to more than 12,000 with the addition of more Brazilian, French, and Chilean troops.  The coverage of the disaster has been prominent in the Brazilian media with a significant number of Brazilian journalists, both print and television, reporting daily.  The Brazilian government is anxious to show a leadership role in this crisis that has caught the attention of the world.  It is striking to see this in depth coverage in the media, especially since the poverty and despair in Haiti rivals even the worst that can be found in the infamous interior of the Brazilian northeast.  These pockets of extreme poverty in the Brazilian interior, however, must seem less daunting when juxtaposed with the scale of Haiti’s misery—more than 80 percent of its nearly 10 million people living on less than $2 a day income.

The death of Zilda Arns brings to a close a long and incredible life.  The thirteenth child of a German-Brazilian family, Arns was born in 1934 in southern Brazil.  At a time when there were almost no female physicians in Brazil, she persuaded her father to let her study medicine and become a doctor.  Her older brother, Paulo Evaristo, helped convince her father.  Now 88, the retired archbishop of São Paulo, Dom Paulo Evaristo, is one of the towering figures of the opposition to military rule in Brazil in the 1970s.  He spearheaded the “Torture, Never Again” project that published the landmark book, Brazil:  Never Again in 1985, documenting the extent of torture in Brazil with the military’s own court records, secretly photocopied and microfilmed over years by cooperating lawyers.

Zilda Arns Neumann, M.D.

In the 1980s, at her brother’s suggestion, Zilda Arns led the Pastoral da Criança.  The organization is simple and direct—it recruits and trains hundreds of thousands of women in the poorest regions of Brazil to give their children a simple mix of sugar, salt, and water to stop diarrhea–and save lives.  The infant mortality rate in these poor areas dropped from more than 120 per 1,000 live births to less than 25 in a very brief period.  The Pastoral, under her leadership, has been a major factor in the steady reduction of infant mortality in Brazil over the past generation.   After the success in Brazil, she took her work around the world in the last two decades, from East Timor to Haiti.  Her work in Haiti in the past few years has helped cut the infant mortality rate drastically.

On her last visit, she arrived in Port-au-Prince on January 11.  On January 12 she spoke to more than 100 priests on the third floor of the Sacré Coeur de Tugeau Church.  She finished her talk at 4:45 p.m. and was speaking with some of the priests who remained in the room.  Within minutes the tremors struck, and the building collapsed–killing Dona Zilda and most of those around her.  At a wake for her on January 15 in Curitiba, President Lula da Silva, the governor of the state of Paraná, the two leading contenders in the upcoming presidential election, and many other dignitaries paid their respects to an exceptional woman who forged an exemplary life helping children around the globe.

President Lula and other dignitaries at Zilda Arns wake

The Multiplier Effect

December 12, 2009

Before I go on with my description of the cast of characters in my neighborhood I want to pause and write about an incredible community service project a friend of mine, Chris “Sparky” Sparks, has been working on for the past two years.

Chris is an amazing guy.  A Marine pilot with experience flying missions in the Middle East, he was an ROTC instructor at Vanderbilt, and a student in the Owen Graduate School of Management.  He decided he wanted eventually to pursue a career in international business.  He studied Portuguese at Vanderbilt and decided the best way to gain true fluency was to move to Brazil.  When he went into the Reserves last year, he came down to Rio and, on his own savings, began to build a non-profit (NGO, non-governmental organization) in the largest slum (favela) in Rio–Rocinha.  With some 350,000 inhabitants, Rocinha is a small city that has grown up on the western slopes of the Dois Irmãos mountains that separate Ipanema/Leblon from Barra da Tijuca, the highest priced neighborhoods in the city.

Rocinha with peaks of Dois Irmãos to the upper right, and Ipanema and Leblon in the distance

After encountering a series of frustrations trying to work with some existing NGOs in Rio, Chris eventually moved into Rocinha to live with a family and started Crossfit, a “strength and conditioning program for many police academies and tactical operations teams, military special operations units, champion martial artists.”  The idea is simple:  teach people how to get into shape, do with some martial arts, and then teach them how to teach others.  The multiplier effect.  Through his own extraordinary efforts, he has raised donations (cash and equipment), rented a location in Rochinha, and trained locals to run the operation.  With some luck, and all his hard work, he may be able to secure the sponsorship of some athletic companies, especially with the World Cup and Olympic Games coming to Rio in the next few years.  If you would like to see something about Crossfit, check out the website at To see his blog go to

Crossfit loction in Rocinha

Recently, Chris took a job in Brasília and this will make his work here in Rio more dependent on those he has trained to run the operation in Rocinha.  If you would like to help Chris out, he is in always in need of volunteers to help with fundraising, doing the paperwork to register Crossfit as a U.S. non-profit, or to secure donations of equipment.  Chris has done an incredible amount of work to get this project off the ground, and it is on the verge of sustainability.  I hope some of you reading this will help him out with this amazing project.