New Internationalist

At the top of the hill

Issue 386

Gabriela Tôrres Barbosa lives in one of Rio de Janeiro’s many favelas that stretch up the steep hillsides to surround the ‘official’ city.

I am really not feeling too well these days. My brain doesn’t stop thinking. It seems like I am going crazy. I live in several Brazils at the same time.

I wake up, drink English tea and sit down to study for a degree that I could never pay for if it weren’t for the scholarship. Today I study English, Philosophy and Sociology: all these beautifully strange subjects invading my simple home – a home I love the way it is, but would like to see finished one day.

I feel different from other people
They do not seem to care any longer
It looks like they have accepted their fate.
I will not accept mine
I am a stranger in the nest.

I wish to advise everyone that I like living in the favela. The only thing I would like to change is that its inhabitants one day have more options to choose from and can walk around freely without other people getting scared when they hear the magic word: ‘favela’. Sometimes when I talk to people and tell them where I am from they are stunned and say: ‘Wow. You speak so eloquently. Write beautiful things and are nicely dressed. How is it possible?’

The newspapers don’t even bother to show
The ‘other’ favela.
Hey, You! Yeah, You.
Don’t get too caught up about the news you read,
There is so much more to say.
I invite you to walk up the morro
To meet the real favela.

When you are born up there on top of the morro (hill), in the Zona Sul of Rio de Janeiro, it seems like your destiny has been decided like an arrow that hits its target and leaves its mark forever. But it is not impossible to change your fate. It is necessary to resist: to transform your reality.

To live in the favela is só alegria, all joy. When I come back to the communidade it is like a tribe – everybody knows me, and people talk to each other and kiss and hug and genuinely take care of one another. In the favela I feel safe and recognized; I have the freedom to be who I am without having to meet other people’s prejudices of how people like me are supposed to be. To live in a communidade means an extension of one’s home. No-one will ever go hungry because there will always be an open door and a gesture of solidarity.

Let there still be hope and future,
Sincerity and resilience.
And let it be authentic and pure,
the life of her that has little.
And that what she has will be enough
To bring her happiness.

The other day in a middle-class apartment building I noticed that people do not greet one another in the elevator. Many do not even know their neighbours. If one day they needed help, it would be quite difficult to find it next door.

Brazilian Woman.
Indigenous, Black and White.
Favela Woman,
Born from a belly in the Senzala.
Samba Woman,
Dancing to the rhythm of life.

Nobody ever comes up here to film our fashion shows, our dances, our young people playing Capoeira (a famous martial arts/dance originally brought to Brazil by the African slaves). Nobody wants to see all our culture, so beautiful and intense. Yet it’s up here in the morros where one sees the hard and sweet reality that is not shown in the newspapers. Of course drug trafficking exists. And all the violence shown on TV is also real; but it is obvious that the news gets manipulated to increase ratings. In fact, all this violence is perpetuated by the same people that denounce it in the first place.

When the bullet leaves the gun
It is news in the papers.
But she who lives in the favela
Always knows so much more:
the
pagode starts at ten;
Seu Jorge is sick;
A new life has been born.

When I go to work with the homeless, I am confronted with all the energy and depression of those that society has forgotten. Even the little bit they ask for – some kind of social inclusion – may be impossible. They sit in the eternal waiting room of the excluded. I open the door of the community library and find our new books soaking wet. The water coming in through the roof destroyed the bookshelf and I – totally impotent – cannot do anything. This library has always been like a second home for me. I helped build it and here I learned how to be a storyteller. And now everything is lost.

They forget how to love,
How to love their country.
Detached from the respect
That they will owe it forever.
They never see you,
Country of the black,
Country of the poor,
Excluded from everything.

I walk up the Favela Santa Marta and notice all the different faces invisible to society. The kindergarten kids are awaiting me anxiously and I can only offer them my voice, love and attention, and a handful of old books that they already know but never get tired of seeing. And every time they listen to the stories their little eyes brighten as if they were hearing something totally new. It makes me feel even more impotent and sad, and angry. I feel like I could have done more and better.

Hypothetically
Impeded to act,
Impatient to live,
Impotent to be.
Imploring for freedom.

I walk back home on the wealthy streets of Botafogo where the beautiful and expensive cars of local private school students block half the street and cause the same huge traffic jam twice a day. They think the whole city is at their service like the empregadas (poor, usually black, maids) serving them 24 hours a day. And I keep walking. Past 10-year-old drug dealers with machine guns bigger than themselves. Past 12-year-old mothers selling their little bodies for drugs, money or the latest cellular phone. Past the 73-year-old lady selling chewing gum at the local cinema where people pay more for a ticket than she earns in 3 days’ work.

I never stopped dreaming.
I know that the poor don’t study:
The rich and powerful have told me many times.
But I also know that
if I really want to do it,
they cannot stop me.

I leave home a bit earlier and walk to university in order not to spend money on public transport. For so many years I tried to get into university and now that I am finally ‘allowed’ to study, long walks or lack of money will not discourage me. If there is one thing the favela teaches you from early on, it’s to improvise; to re-invent yourself every day. I sit down comfortably in the university’s modern computer lab and take advantage of the technology available to enter the digital world. The digital world! It is amazing how we keep creating things that could benefit humanity but that actually just widen the gap between haves and have-nots. Then I sit in the lecture theatre –

Everything is now illusion,
Nothing really exists.
We live in a big play
That never goes beyond the last act.

The other day my literature professor had the gall to say: ‘If the Government built apartment buildings for the inhabitants of the Santa Marta Favela, they would destroy everything within a week since they would not even know how to use the bathroom.’ Obviously I could not let his remark go unchallenged. We fought for a few minutes, destroying the ‘civilized’ atmosphere of the university. I feel nauseous and guilty when I go home after class and see the woman with her crying child asking people for money, or the homeless man battling his army of ghosts. It upsets me, this surreal middle-class world of mediocrity and isolation. Everything is about consuming.

Let them jump freely,
With neither limits nor pain,
Let them jump freely,
Without fear or shame,
Let them fly freely,
Absorbing the essence of the air.

At the same time, I have made many friends from the middle class. I have the support of many people that encourage me constantly and help me to keep going. They are people who see the world very clearly even though they were born into a world of illusion. I feel much stronger after exchanging with them all the anguishes and limitations that plague our lives. Perhaps my existence in these multiple Brazils may allow me to empower myself and attempt to change a few things with more firmness and self-confidence.

To live is to allow for change,
Is being vulnerable at every moment,
Is to move towards the unknown,
Is everything and nothing.

And I would like to stress that I am not complaining about my condition. I even feel privileged to live with something where others have nothing. How many 26-year-olds reach their age without having children? How many people are allowed to study at university – to read and write; to live another language; to have their voices heard; to get a job they like? How many?

I defy the statistics. But I do not want to do this on my own. I want to be joined by all the other excluded. All those so conveniently forgotten. It may seem a bit idealistic to want everyone to be able to do such things. But if I cannot dream at least a little, I won’t have the strength to continue.

My brain is my weapon. By constructing my ideals and dreams – transforming them into poetry – I can use my capacities in favour of the excluded. Equipped with pencil and paper and lots of ideas, I will keep fighting: always searching for a new reality for and with those that have never lost their hope.

I have to keep smiling in order to be able to survive in this jungle. And I will keep smiling even though I am sad, and I will treat everyone with love and patience although they may not deserve it. The day I lose my smile, my life will end. I will not let this happen.

The poor cannot allow that others rule their lives.
We have to fight from the moment we are born
till our last breath.
Cry out! Cry out if the cause is noble!

Gabriela Tôrres Barbosa is a poet. In translation from Portuguese by Hjalmar-Jorge Joffre-Eichhorn.

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