Back in November 2006, I visited a favela in Sao Paulo called Maria Cursi and met a 10 year old boy called Lucas, who lived in a fragile house over an open sewer . It was a day that affected me very deeply.
The simple encounter both touched and challenged me and I know has touched many others too. Lucas’s house was small like my garden shed but less robust and made out of thin wood which he was painting green in preparation for Christmas.
This morning Sueli, Sarah, Anna Caterina and I met with MDF volunteer and community leader Sivoniza to return to return to the favela.
Sivoniza explained that the favela has grown in size over the past five years and the challenges are huge. Her role is to engage with all in her community and encourage self worth, participation and action.
In recent years, the involvement and transformation of women in the community has been a huge success. Many women, who previously were frightened to even leave their houses or say ‘no’ to their husbands, have been attending MDF led courses in literacy, business and IT. They have grown in self esteem, confidence and started engaging in MDF meetings and campaigns.
The community have finally had a safer electricity system installed in the favela and attained the legal right to stay on the land. (There was previously risk of them being evicted and their homes being flattened.
Five years ago there were 120 wooden houses in the favela , today this has been reduced to only 12. Families have bought cement and improved their homes. However, huge challenges still remain in this fragile community.
The downside of having safe electricity installed in the favela is that the newly part privatised electricity company are currently overcharging the families for their usage. MDF are mobilising the community to take part in a meeting and campaign this Saturday for a fairer system based on usage. Sivoniza was distributing leaflets around the favela.
MDF are also lobbying the government for safer housing for families such as Lucas’s who still live in precarious conditions over the sewer.
Lucas’s house has slightly improved since we last visited. They have now built a concrete floor which stops rats entering through the floorboards. However, the house is still overcrowded with his large family and still built of wood.
Lucas’s mum Socorro welcomes us very warmly and invites us into their house. Lucas is now 15 years old and is wearing the football shirt of his favourite team Corinthians. He hasn’t changed very much, which is alarming because he is 5 years older. Unfortunately, Lucas is not eating well and hasn’t physically grown or developed.
I introduce myself and ask if he remembers our previous visit, he smiles and says yes he remembers me because I gave him a pen! I smile but feel awful inside.
We sit down in an area near the house on the floor with Lucas and his mum and have a chat about why we are here. With the help of Ana Caterina and Sivoniza I explain about my work in England and how people are interested in life in the favelas and in Lucas. I ask him if he’d like to see a two minute film made by a group of boys his age, at a school called St Columba’s in England, which was made especially for him and Sueli.
Lucas said he was very happy to see the film and to be famous in England and delighted with the rugby shirt and school medal from his new friends in England.
We then chat a bit more to find out about Lucas’s life.
Lucas is 15 years old. He enjoys playing football with his friends and likes samba music and funk. One of his sisters tells us he is a good dancer, which embarrasses him.
Unfortunately, Lucas doesn’t attend school that often anymore but really needs to as he has the educational level of only an 11 year old. (He should be in the English equivalent of Year 11 by now but is only in Year 7).
Lucas says he knows education is important and knows he should return to school. I hand him the CD of the St Columba’s boys’ message and suggest he takes it to school where there is a computer so he can show his friends.
MDF are offering some courses at the church, which Lucas’s mum has benefited from and which might be useful for Lucas in the future, but for now he really needs to return to school.
Lucas’s situation is very precarious. Unfortunately, although two of his older brothers get work as casual labourers and perhaps have the skills and income to improve the house, they have both succumbed to drink and are alcoholics. One of Lucas’s sisters has depression and another sister, who I noticed had a ‘black eye’, dates a drug dealer in the favela.
It’s a miracle that Lucas has steered clear of drugs and alcohol in spite of the obvious risks. He is a very warm and engaging boy, and him and his mum are surviving surrounded by huge challenges with the support of MDF.
I feel happy to see Lucas again, but am completely cut up inside.
These are the stark realities faced by the over 2 million people who live in favelas in Sao Paulo.
As we say good bye to Lucas, he has a beaming smile. I am scared for his today and tomorrow and I want to go home and cry.
However, we are off to another favela less than 5 minutes walk away way called Diveneia, where MDF also work and which is a beacon of hope.