I sat down at my computer today to tell you how I walked around a favela, one of those notoriously impoverished, crime-ridden communities huddled on the hills of Rio de Janeiro. But I’ve changed my mind. Instead I’m going to tell you a story about a land far away – 5,800 miles to be exact.
It was 7.30pm on Good Friday when my news editor wandered past my desk. “You know what darlin’,” she said (she really talks like that) “There’s a 13-year-old girl who’s been missing two days now. She might just have run away but, you know, it’s a quiet night. Why don’t you go and have a chat with her mum and see what happened?”
Forty minutes later, I pulled onto a street in which mine was the only car. I parked, I knocked and the girl’s mother let me in. Her house was bare, save for a few chairs on the carpet-free floor and a sofa that had seen better days. There was a puppy and several kids though, including an eight-year-old who had his nose pressed against the window.
“Is that your car?” he asked me excitedly. “What is it?”
“It’s a Vauxhall Corsa,” I replied, trying not to smile.
Four years have passed since that night but I remember it perfectly. It either altered the way I see the world or it confirmed simmering doubts I didn’t know I had. The girl’s mother was vague. Her kid was a runner – always disappearing somewhere. Maybe she was being bullied at school but, then again, maybe she wasn’t even going to school. Her mother had no idea.
“I think she might be in Kirkby,” she sighed finally, handing me another cup of tea and trying to pull the puppy from my knee, saving my notebook in the process.
“People have seen her there. Sometimes I think she sleeps on the streets.”
“Have you been to look for her?” I said, amazed. Kirkby was 20 minutes on the bus.
“Go to Kirkby?” the women replied, equally dumbfounded.
“How would I get all the way there?”
I’m not asking you to judge this woman. She wasn’t an addict (trust me, I know the signs) She didn’t work, she had lots of children, a gorgeous dog – I don’t know if there was a father on the scene. She probably wanted the kids to go to school, she just wasn’t sure how to go about it. Any of it.
Once I picked up the phone to a woman who sounded exactly like my grandmother. “Hello lovely,” she sang. “I’m calling because I want you to come to my house. I hope you don’t mind. It’s just the kids in the street, they keep shooting at my windows for a laugh and I’m sick of it.”
Half an hour later we stood together, eating chocolate biscuits and inspecting the gaping bullet holes in her bedroom window. “I can’t believe this, I don’t know if putting something in the paper will help, but I’m sure we can,” I said, pulling on my coat and preparing to leave.
She gave me a hug. “Don’t worry about it queen,” she said. “Just give my love to your grandmother.”
Another day, another phone call. This time it was a man and it probably was the final straw.
“You have to come and see how I live,” he said, bluntly.
“I’m sick of it.”
And so I drove to see the man. Mr Final Straw. He lived on a ridiculous council estate – indeed he was the dregs of a ridiculous council estate. It was due for extinction but then the council ran out of money to build new houses, so there he was. A straggler stuck in hell.
He was the only person still living in his terrace. The other houses were derelict and burnt out, you could see the caved roofs and blackened beams. The previous night, 10 youths had tried to break into his home. He’d saved it – for what it was worth – by barricading himself against the door.
I couldn’t forget that man and, when two lovely friends visited from down south the following weekend, I ditched the usual ‘Docks and Beatles’ Whirlwind Tour (yes, we’re talking about Liverpool, my favourite place in England) and decided to drive them out there instead. We ‘toured’ the deserted terraced streets and admired the effects of arson and other pointless crimes.
“The trouble is Vick,” one of my friends remarked afterwards.
“There are still people living like that in London too.”
They say Che Guevara was radicalised in Guatamala. I actually don’t believe that, but I like to joke I was radicalised in Liverpool. I became so left wing I once ruined a week of my life seething, because someone in a pub told me he believed the National Health Service should come with an opt out.
Because, the fact is, Liverpool changed me. I used to think I had a first class degree because I was cleverer than other people. I actually have a first class degree because my parents took me to school at five-years-old and for a good many years afterwards. They believed in education. I’ve heard parents in forgotten parts of Merseyside tell their kids not to bother with school because “I didn’t and I’m alright… now just get down the road and buy me some fags.” But hey, we’re all in charge of our own destiny. If you’re not a success, it’s because you’re lazy and that’s a fact. Listen up, five-year-olds.
When we first started to wander around Rio’s dreaded favela, I started to daydream about quitting my cosy life in Bogotá and coming here to volunteer. “You should,” said our guide, Zezinho, who only wanted what was best for the people living in his community. “I can help you.”
But then we walked more. Favelas, if you didn’t already know, sprung up in the late 19th century when disaffected poor folk (including swathes of newly freed slaves) needed somewhere to live. They were pointed towards Rio’s hills. The favela was actually the resilient flower that grew where the people settled (“No matter what you did, you couldn’t bash it down,” Zezinho laughs) When the government failed to help, the people did everything themselves. That’s still the way it is.
The drainage is terrible, families ration their water and the power cuts whenever it feels like it. There are problems with gangsters and narco traffickers. Shootings are not uncommon. Whilst there are marked differences between the favela and what I’ve seen in England, there are similarities too.
“I bet you don’t see this in England,” Zezinho smiled grimly, telling us how the leader of the residents’ association was shot dead after falling in with the drug gangs.
“No, not at all,” responded the three young professionals also on the tour. I wish I could tell you I aired my opposing view in a tactful, dispassionate manner. They looked at me like I was loco.
I enjoyed walking around the favela; it’s amazing how they managed to build the houses on such a slope, connecting all those snaking alleyways and figuring out the jumble of electrical wiring. People in favelas suffer a lot of stigma – unlike those living on council estates in England – and one thing they hate most is that they don’t have proper addresses. They have to use the ones they know, which means hundreds of people listing their address as the same barber’s shop. The barber dutifully puts the mail outside in a huge basket for them to collect.
I admired the community spirit, the resourcefulness, the work ethic. There are great initiatives; the art workshops, Zezinho’s DJ-ing course, the surf school. But we discussed the Government’s errors too. Armed police, for example, were installed in the favela in the wake of the Olympic bid. Unfortunately, the police are more interested in catching drug dealers than protecting local people and, even more unfortunately, the drug dealers were the ones who protected local people with their codes of honour. “Now it’s like we’re living without laws,” Zezinho told us sadly. “The dealers were the ones who meted out the punishments and now they’re all underground.”
And so the day came to an end. “If you want to come back here, contact me and I will help you,” Zezinho told me seriously, shaking my hand.
I thanked him and then I told him the truth. That visiting his favela had made me feel guilty. I’d seen some new problems, for sure, but some familiar old ones too. How can I come here when I know there are poor people in England; lost in the cracks, screwed before they’ve even left the womb and I choose to do absolutely nothing to help them?
“But that’s not true,” he insisted in surprise.
“You have the welfare state. Anyone in England can be a doctor. Sure it’s hard, but it’s possible.”
Really? Is it that easy to break out of the cycle of poverty? Well, don’t tell me. Tell the eight-year-old with his face pressed against the window. That’s if you can find him. His mother doesn’t even know if he goes to school.