A museum for the working class
From the top of a hill overlooking southern Rio de Janeiro, Antônio Firmino of Sankofa Museum, points at the wealthy neighbourhoods of Lagoa and Leblon.
‘Freed black slaves used to live there,’ he says. ‘When they were kicked out, in the early twentieth century, many came here. But many people don’t know that.’
‘Here’ is Rocinha, the largest of Rio de Janeiro’s more than 1,000 favelas and the most populous slum in South America, where Firmino lives. Climbing onto two hills, Rocinha is a hot, layered informal settlement hosting between 100,000 and 200,000 mostly working people – nobody knows for sure – who have access only to poor infrastructure and sanitation.
‘History denies us,’ says Firmino, a black Brazilian who wears dreadlocks half-way down his back and a t-shirt reading Se a Cidade fosse Nossa, ‘If the city were ours’.
History has become another battleground in Brazil. Since taking office in January 2019, Jair Bolsonaro’s government has denied that Brazil ever had a military dictatorship, downplayed the relevance of racism, and argued that slavery benefited Afro-Brazilians – leading some critics to claim that Bolsonaro is ‘rewriting history’.
The problem hits harder in the country’s favelas, shantytowns where more than 11 million residents also face the stigma stemming from routinely negative media coverage on top of inefficient social housing programs. While most favelados are peaceful low-income workers, the presence of drug trafficking gangs leads the media to cover favelas mostly as hotbeds of violence, crime, destitution.
So, in response, a series of initiatives have sprung up to humanize the narrative about communities, document struggles to improve living conditions and lives, while also trying to raise political consciousness among residents. They differ from most social work done in favelas, which often seeks to provide a way out of disadvantaged communities through sports, music and education.
Instead, these more radical initiatives focus on portraying communities with dignity and providing them with critical knowledge about history and politics – equipping residents with the tools to mobilize against any future abuse.
In the northern favela of Maré, for example, two associations organised a grassroots census – to make it harder for the government to treat the many peaceful favela residents ‘like they don’t exist’. Elsewhere, residents created a Museum of Evictions to preserve a record of the long-running struggle against displacement.
In Rocinha, Sankofa focuses on building collective memory – that is, creating a bottom-up history of the community, and then making residents aware of it. Starting in 2008 and building on a similar initiative in the 1980s, Firmino and the other founders have asked residents to donate old photographs and documents – collecting more than 19,000 – and then used them to create a people-powered history of Rocinha.
‘This is our museum’s pitch: we want to tell a story that is normally only told as a tragedy,’ says Firmino. ‘And we want to tell it from the workers’ perspective. The people should tell their own story.’
As we descend from the top of the morro, amid the roar of moto-taxis in the winding mountain roads and the humidity of the dark, steep alleys on its side, Firmino explains that Rocinha’s history is normally told pejoratively.
The dominant version of this story is that the underprivileged migrants that arrived in Rio from Brazil’s northeast in the 1950s squatted the land, laying the foundations for the favela’s current low-quality settlements – blaming poor residents for their living conditions.
But Sankofa’s archive of documents, Firmino says, actually shows that Rocinha’s history is rooted in oppression. For example, before the favela was born, the indigenous peoples that lived among the hills were wiped out by white settlers. Then, at the start of the twentieth century, the first houses popped up after a landowner illegally sold allotments to low-income workers – neglecting his duty to build basic infrastructure to go with the new homes.
Soon, many freed slaves were kicked out of more central areas of Rio de Janeiro and sought shelter in Rocinha. Only after all this, in the 1940s and 1950s, did northeastern immigrants arrive to find already established informal shelter.
This version of the favela’s history, Firmino says, highlights how thousands of people were in fact neglected and marginalised, and how they had to fight for the few basic improvements that followed. In the early days ‘there were no sanitation, no health-care and no schools,’ Firmino says. ‘The first school, the Escola Francisco De Paula Brito, was built in the 1970s – decades after the favela was born.’
The Sankofa Museum, whose name comes from the word ‘Sankofa’ of Ghana’s Twi language, whose meaning roughly expresses the need to study history in order to understand how people live in the present, is still carrying out grassroots research.
It takes the form of periodical ‘museum tea’ sessions, during which they invite the oldest residents for deep-dive meetings into the favela’s history. Residents share their oldest memories, documents and photographs about a topic, which Sankofa then feeds into its archive.
The group has also worked to spread awareness about its findings among the community. Being organised as an ‘itinerant’ museum as opposed to having a physical space, its members take residents and tourists on historical tours of Rocinha, during which they explain how history unfolded and highlight the working class, peaceful and more surprising aspects of life in the favela – the shops, the ecological park, the working class residents waking up at 5am to work in Rio’s wealthiest districts.
Sankofa also organises itinerant exhibitions in Rocinha’s squares and schools, where they use their photographic archive to highlight the residents’ past struggles. Often, struggles took the shape of mutirões, collective demonstrations in which residents worked together for free to improve their community.
First, residents called their neighbours to the streets. Then, they laid pipes, fixed houses or did sanitation work. Finally, communities often organized fundraising parties to finance future demonstrations. Firmino says that residents demanded to ‘be treated like citizens, have running water, basic sanitation and urbanization’.
Firmino says that Sankofa are moved by the belief that ‘People without a past are people without a future, and they will believe everything the elites say about them.’
But also, he says that knowing their history could make favela residents see how most of the improvements that occurred in Rocinha were achieved through political struggles.
‘The sanitation we have was a residents’ achievement,’ says Firmino. ‘The community health centre was another residents’ achievement. Same goes for the Pasarela [the first bridge that crossed a motorway dividing Rocinha from nearby neighbourhoods, and linking it to the rest of Rio de Janeiro]. Same goes for the schools.
‘Residents will see that nobody will give them anything – change won’t come from outside,’ Firmino says. ‘They’ll have to fight for it.’